Tinker v. Des Moines | 1969
Petitioner in the Tinker v. Des Moines Independent
Federalist Society -Free Speech and Election Law Practice Group Chair
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  • John Tinker on Protesting the Vietnam War in School
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  • The Legacy of Tinker v. Des Moines
Subject: Protecting Student’s 1st Amendment Rights
Case Decided:
February 24, 1969

Tinker v. Des Moines determined it was a First Amendment violation for public schools to punish students for expressing themselves. In a 7-2 decision, the Court concluded that the rights of children are parallel to the rights of adults and that "students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views."

After wearing black armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam War, three students -- two of them siblings -- were suspended by the Des Moines Independent Community School District for disrupting learning. The parents of the children sued the school for violating the children's rights to free speech. After the district court sided with the school along with the court of appeals, the case reached the Supreme Court.

In the majority opinion, delivered by Justice Fortas, the Court stated students should not be punished for their "passive expression of opinion" and that the ban on armbands came about as a "urgent wish to avoid the controversy … First Amendment rights, applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment, are available to teachers and students. It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

Key Players
Mary Beth & John Tinker
Siblings, Mary Beth Tinker & John Tinker, were suspended from school in 1965 for wearing black armbands to school in protest against the Vietnam war.
Justice Abe Fortas
Abe Fortas (June 19, 1910 - April 5, 1982) was a lawyer, politician and raised as an Orthodox Jew. Despite Fortas’ short career on the Court (1965-1969) and his financial scandals, he made an impact as an advocate for civil liberties and his support for students’ rights to protest. He delivered the majority opinion in Tinker v. Des Moines stating “students in school, as well as out of school, are 'persons' under our Constitution.”
Justice Hugo Black
Hugo Black (February 27, 1886 – September 25, 1971) was a politician and former Ku Klux Klan member eventually known for his civil rights rulings. He was a Supreme Court justice (1937 – 1971) and an advocate for the Fourteenth Amendment. Black was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first appointment to the Court. Justice Black penned one of two dissenting opinions in Tinker v. Des Moines stating “It is a myth to say that any person has a constitutional right to say what he pleases, where he pleases, and when he pleases. Our Court has decided precisely the opposite.”
Justice John M. Harlan II
John M. Harlan II (May 20, 1899-December 29, 1971) was a conservative Supreme Court justice (1955-1971) who regularly voted for the expansion of civil rights. He was best known for dissenting in cases where police officers were restricted of interrogation practices, Miranda v. Arizona. Harlan often had opposing ideology to Justice Black, but in Tinker v. Des Moines, both offered dissenting opinions of the case.
Christopher Eckhardt
Christopher Eckhardt was one of the three plaintiffs in Tinker v. Des Moines. Eckhardt, along with the Tinker siblings, wore black armbands to protest U.S. policy in Vietnam.
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