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Landmark Free Speech Case Opens Students’ Eyes to Role of Appellate Courts

The high school students who apprehensively entered a federal courtroom in Washington, D.C., didn’t know what to expect.

Over the next few hours, their confidence grew as they served on the bench as appellate judges with Merrick Garland, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. In their role as his judicial colleagues, they asked pointed and incisive questions of their peers — the student attorneys who appeared before them.

As student judges and lawyers, they applied the precedent set in Tinker v. Des Moines, the Supreme Court’s 1969 landmark case that helped define the free speech rights of public school students.

This U.S. Courts video shows 40 D.C. students participating in a realistic simulation of an appellate hearing in the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse in Washington, D.C. Garland presides and guides the student judges through the conference that results in majority and concurring opinions. After the courtroom simulation, Mary Beth Tinker, who took her student speech case to the Supreme Court at age 13, talked with the participants about issues they believe are worth protesting. 

Tinker v. Des Moines grew out of a 1965 protest against the Vietnam War. When school administrators in Des Moines prohibited students from wearing black armbands at school, Tinker, her brother, and a friend failed to comply and were sent home. The Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that their actions were protected by the First Amendment.

The simulated court case in the video updates the Tinker scenario, focusing on a student walkout protesting a dress code that prohibits students from wearing slogans, such as “Black Lives Matter,” on their clothing at school. The program materials are available to courts and schools as part of the federal Judiciary’s 2019 Law Day observance in May, which will focus on the rights protected by the First Amendment. 

Related Topics: Public Education