Hot Topics - Free Speech In Schools

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District Historical Background
In Tinker v. Des Moines, the United States Supreme Court decided a case where school regulations infringed on the freedom of students to exercise their First Amendment rights. There, three students had planned to wear black armbands to school to publicize their objections to the Vietnam War. Hearing of this, the school principals "adopted a policy that any student wearing an armband to school would be asked to remove it, and if he refused he would be suspended until he returned without the armband." When the three wore their armbands to school, "[t]hey were all sent home and suspended from school until they would come back without their armbands."

The students then filed a complaint praying for an injunction restraining the school officials and the members of the board of directors of the school district from disciplining the students, and seeking nominal damages.

The issue before the Court was "[w]hether the First and Fourteenth Amendments permit[ted] officials of state supported public schools to prohibit students from wearing symbols of political views within school premises where the symbols are not disruptive of school discipline or decorum."

Free Speech v. School Regulations
First, the Court considered whether the First Amendment protected the wearing of armbands. The Court noted that the students wore armbands to express a certain viewpoint, which is "the type of symbolic act that is within the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment." Furthermore, in this case, the wearing of armbands was entirely divorced from the participants' actually or potentially disruptive conduct, so it was "closely akin to 'pure speech' which . . . is entitled to comprehensive protection under the First Amendment."

Within the public school context, the Court noted that the "Fourteenth Amendment . . . protects the citizen against the State itself and all of its creatures - Boards of Education not excepted." Teachers and students did not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

However, the Court admitted that the school setting presented a special situation, and recognized "the need for affirming the comprehensive authority of the States and of school officials, consistent with fundamental constitutional safeguards, to prescribe and control conduct in the schools."

Pure Speech
The Court viewed the armband prohibition differently from other school regulations governing skirt length, clothing type, hair styles or student behavior.

The Court noted that the students' protest was a silent, passive expression of opinion which

  • did not involve "aggressive, disruptive action or even group demonstration,"
  • did not interfere "with the school's work," and
  • did not collide with "the rights of other students to be secure or to be let alone."

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