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Fictional Scenario - Tinker v. Des Moines

The fictional scenario is based on the landmark Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines. 


Time: 50 Minutes

Lesson Outcome

Students will be able to apply the Supreme Court precedent set in Tinker v. Des Moines to a fictional, contemporary scenario. They will practice civil discourse skills to explore the tensions between students’ interests in free speech and expression on campus and their school’s interests in maintaining an orderly learning environment. They will have the opportunity to find common ground and come up with compromises.

Essential Question

To what extent should schools be able to restrict students’ freedom of expression on campus?

Civil Discourse: Setting Ground Rules (10 minutes) Lead the students through a brief ground rules-setting activity. Before launching a discussion of the behaviors listed on the page, start by asking students to name their pet peeves when it comes to how people act during difficult conversations. Using the list of behaviors in the activity, ask students to change or fine-tune the list and add their own recommendations for establishing and maintaining civility.

Fact Gathering and Analysis

  1. Read the Facts and Case Summary: Tinker v. Des Moines (5 minutes) Have students read the facts and case summary to themselves. They underline key facts that support the students’ side of the argument using a wavy line. They underline key facts that support the school district’s side of the argument using a straight line.
  2. Read the Fictional Scenario (5 minutes) Have students take turns reading the fictional scenario. They underline key facts that support the students’ side of the issues using a wavy line. They underline key facts that support the school’s side of the issues using a straight line.

Discussion Starter Instructions - 20 minutes

Organize students into two groups. One group is the students and one group is the school district. Have each side break into smaller groups or pairs and write key talking points for each of the following questions, then facilitate a discussion requiring the students to cite facts from the scenario to back up their statements as they practice civil discourse skills.

  1. Did the walkout disrupt the school’s learning environment?
  2. Did the administration violate students’ First Amendment rights?
  3. What compromise could the students have offered to ensure that there was no disruption to the learning environment as they exercised their free speech rights at school?
  4. What compromise could the administration have offered to protect students’ First Amendment rights while maintaining an orderly learning environment at school?

Activity Wrap Up - 15 minutes

Using the Civility Self-Reflection Tool, have students rate their own behavior during the class discussions. Ask students to volunteer to share their findings.

Fictional Scenario

The Constitution and Civil Discourse – Free Speech and School Walkouts

In a closed-door meeting during spring break, the West School District adopted a new dress code. Created without student input, the dress code was scheduled to go into effect the week after spring break. The dress code banned apparel with messages and slogans of any kind – commercial, political, social, or humorous/ironic. The school board chair said the rationale was twofold:

  1. To maintain an orderly learning environment, and
  2. To avoid conflict and disruption about inappropriate, offensive, or triggering messages that could be worn on clothing while at school.

In an open letter to the students and the community, the school officials explained that in an increasingly polarized society, the message-free clothing policy would reduce the potential for distractions and disruptions in favor of an orderly learning environment.  The school board sought to avoid any disruptions that might arise from students wearing clothing with offensive or controversial logos or slogans. The school officials reported in the letter that class time had recently been taken up in heated discussions around T-shirts with messages such as:

  • Don’t Be My 13th Reason.                    
  • We Call BS.
  • Believe in Something. Even if it Means Sacrificing Everything.
  • Black Lives Matter.
  • Confederate Monuments Forever.
  • #Me Too.

In response, the West High School Student Government Association (SGA) announced on social media that the first day back from spring break would be Free Speech Day with a walkout staged by the students. The walkout was scheduled during the first lunch period, when half of the student body would be at lunch and half would be in class. Students were to wear their free speech T-shirts under their clothes so that the only time the messages would be visible was during the protest. The plan was to meet off campus at the public parking lot across the street from the school.

Other students commented on social media that they agreed with the dress code because racist or other discriminatory messages on clothes are disruptive, as are student walkouts, especially with important tests scheduled in the coming weeks.

The school administration learned about the walkout and the principal sent out a robocall, warning that students who walked out of school would face consequences for disrupting the learning environment. The principal explained in the robocall that students were expected to remain in class and those on lunch break may not leave campus because the school’s policy requires students to stay on school grounds during the school day for their own safety. Approximately 75 students – almost half of the student body – came from the cafeteria and the classrooms to meet in the public parking lot as part of the walkout.    

Some students carried signs that read: “Civic Action Isn’t Disruptive, It IS my Civics Education.” Many wore T-Shirts that read: “We Don’t Shed Our Rights at the Schoolhouse Gate” a reference to the Supreme Court’s 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines, long considered the landmark case defining students’ free speech rights at school. The principal gave detention to all of the students who participated in the walkout – the same consequences students receive when they skip classes or leave the school grounds during the school day.

Some of the students who were given detention filed a lawsuit against the school district and the principal, claiming that the message-free policy violated their First Amendment rights and that the walkout was protected speech under the Constitution. 

The school district and the principal argue that their actions did not violate the First Amendment and were necessary to maintain a safe and orderly learning environment.

DISCLAIMER: These resources are created by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts for educational purposes only. They may not reflect the current state of the law, and are not intended to provide legal advice, guidance on litigation, or commentary on any pending case or legislation.