TINKER v. DES MOINES SCHOOL DISTRICT

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1 networks - Print Lesson Print TINKER v. DES MOINES SCHOOL DISTRICT Public school officials set standards of behavior that students are expected to follow. Does this arrangement leave students with any rights? Sometimes the Supreme Court must decide. Background of the Case One night in December 1965, a group of public school students, led by high school sophomores Christopher Eckhardt and John Tinker and eighth-grader Mary Beth Tinker, wore black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. As other students joined the armband protest, principals and members of the school board met the growing protest with a ban on armbands to prevent disturbing influences at school. On December 16, 1965, Christopher, John, and Mary Beth were suspended for wearing their armbands to school. Their parents protested the suspensions in federal court. They contended that the students First Amendment right of free speech had been violated. The Decision On February 24, 1969, the United States Supreme Court in a 7 2 decision declared the school suspensions unconstitutional. Justice Abe Fortas, who wrote the majority opinion, first established that the students action was akin [similar] to pure speech. Even though their protest involved no speaking, he argued, it deserved protection under the First Amendment. In the key passage of the opinion, Justice Fortas wrote: "It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." Why It Matters -United States Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas Supporters of the young protesters saluted the Court decision that students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views. Critics who opposed the wearing of the armbands predicted harmful consequences. Justice Hugo Black dissented from the majority opinion. He suggested that the Court s decision was the beginning of a new revolutionary era of permissiveness in this country fostered by the judiciary. He argued that no one has a complete right to freedom of speech and expression. Later decisions, such as Bethel School District v. Fraser (1986) and Hazelwood School District v.kuhlmeier (1988), narrowed students First Amendment rights. These rulings by their nature also expanded the authority of school officials. Analyzing the Case 1. Explaining Why did the students' lawyers argue that wearing the armbands was protected by the First Amendment? 2. Inferring How did Justice Fortas's concept of "pure speech" extend First Amendment free speech rights? 1 of 1 11/18/14, 4:10 PM

2 Lesson 1 The First Amendment Free Speech in Public Schools What rights do public school students have? This question was at the heart of the 1969 Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines School District. The case began in 1965, when 15-year-old John Tinker and his 13-year-old sister, Mary Beth, wore black armbands to school in Des Moines, Iowa. They wanted to show their opposition to the Vietnam War. School officials asked them to remove the armbands. They refused and were suspended. The students complained that their First Amendment rights to free expression were violated. A district court agreed with the school officials that the ban on armbands was a reasonable measure to maintain school discipline. In a 7 2 decision, the Supreme Court sided with the students. Justice Abe Fortas wrote the majority opinion, explaining the Court s reasoning. Justice Hugo Black wrote the dissenting opinion, which explained why he disagreed with the majority. Read the excerpts of their opinions and then answer the questions that follow. Directions: Read the following opinions that debate whether the students rights to free expression were violated. Reading 1 For the students (written by Justice Abe Fortas) The wearing of an armband for the purpose of expressing certain views is the type of symbolic act that is within the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.... It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.... The District Court concluded that the action of the school authorities was reasonable because it was based upon their fear of a disturbance from the wearing of the armbands. But, in our system,... fear... of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression.... Any word spoken, in class, in the lunchroom, or on the campus, that 1

3 Reading 1 Cont. deviates [differs] from the views of another person may start an argument or cause a disturbance. But our Constitution says we must take this risk, and our history says that it is this sort of hazardous [dangerous] freedom this kind of openness that is the basis of our national strength and of the independence and vigor of Americans.... School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students... may not be confined to the expression of those sentiments [feelings] that are officially approved. In the absence of a specific showing of constitutionally valid [legal] reasons to regulate their speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views.... But conduct by the student, in class or out of it, which... materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others is, of course, not immunized [protected] by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech These petitioners [the armband wearers]... neither interrupted school activities nor sought to intrude in the school affairs or the lives of others. They caused discussion outside of the classrooms, but no interference with work and no disorder. In the circumstances, our Constitution does not permit officials of the State to deny their form of expression. Reading 2 Against the students (written by Justice Hugo Black) While I have always believed that, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, neither the State nor the Federal Government has any authority to regulate or censor [suppress] the content of speech, I have never believed that any person has a right to give speeches or engage in demonstrations where he pleases and when he pleases.... While the record does not show that any of these armband students shouted, used profane [vulgar] language, or were violent in any manner,... I think the record... shows that the armbands... took the students' minds off their classwork 2

4 Reading 2 Cont. and diverted them to thoughts about the highly emotional subject of the Vietnam war.... Public schools... are operated to give students an opportunity to learn, not to talk politics by actual speech, or by "symbolic" speech. Of course, students, like other people, cannot concentrate on lesser issues when black armbands are being ostentatiously [in a showy way] displayed in their presence to call attention to the wounded and dead of the war. Uncontrolled and uncontrollable liberty is an enemy to domestic peace. We cannot close our eyes to the fact that some of the country's greatest problems are crimes committed by the youth, too many of school age. School discipline, like parental discipline, is an integral and important part of training our children to be good citizens to be better citizens. Here a very small number of students have crisply and summarily [pointedly] refused to obey a school order.... [A]fter the Court's holding today, some students in Iowa schools and, indeed, in all schools will be ready, able, and willing to defy their teachers on practically all orders. This is the more unfortunate for the schools since groups of students all over the land are already running loose, conducting break-ins, sitins, lie-ins, and smash-ins.... It is nothing but wishful thinking to imagine that young, immature students will not soon believe it is their right to control the schools. Analyzing Primary Sources Directions: Answer the following questions. 1. According to Justice Fortas, why does wearing an armband qualify as a constitutionally protected right? 3

5 2. How does each justice support his view of whether the armbands were disruptive? 3. What does Justice Fortas identify as the risk and the benefit of protecting free speech? 4. What concerns does Justice Black express about American students, and how does he think the Court s decision will affect public schools in the future? Critical Thinking 5. Drawing Conclusions Do you think the Supreme Court would have ruled differently if the armband protest had involved violence? Use evidence from the excerpts to support your answer. 4

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