Tinker v. Des Moines

Following is the case brief for Tinker v. Des Moines, United States Supreme Court, (1969)

Case summary for Tinker v. Des Moines:

  • Students were suspended for wearing black arm bands in protest of the Vietnam War.
  • Their parents challenged the suspension alleging their childrens’ First Amendment rights were violated.
  • The Court held that absent a specific showing of a constitutionally valid reason to regulate student speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression.
  • Since the district failed to prove that the bands substantially interfered with the school’s work or impinged upon the rights of other students, the ban was unconstitutional.

Tinker v. Des Moines Case Brief

Statement of the facts:

School children Christopher Echardt, John Tinker and Mary Beth Tinker, protested the Vietnam War through wearing armbands to school. In response, the school district suspended the children, and their parents brought suit in federal district court, alleging that their suspension violated their First Amendment right to free speech. The district court held for the school district.

Procedural History:

The Tinkers, along with Echardt appealed the decision to the court of appeals. The court of appeals affirmed the districts court decision and the judgement was appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Public school officials may regulate student speech if they do it without regard to the content of the speech.

Issue and Holding:

Does suspending students for wearing black arm bands in protest of the Vietnam war violate the student’s First Amendment rights? Yes.


Under the First Amendment, a prohibition singling out a particular viewpoint is impermissible. Amendment First Amendment rights are not shed at the door of the schoolhouse. Although this right still belongs to both teachers and students, they must be analyzed despite the comprehensive authority of the states and school officials to control school conduct in uniform with constitutional safeguards.

Here, the student’s conduct does not equate to classic disciplinary problems school officials experience. Wearing black arms bands out of protest directly implicates First Amendment rights affiliated with pure speech. School officials banned the speech and pursued punishing the students for a passive expression of opinion, unaccompanied by disturbance to the work of the schools or disorder.

The district court held suspension was reasonable since it was based on fear of a resulting disturbance. Mere fear or risk of disorder is not a justification to abridge the First Amendment interest to promote free and open discourse in society.

School officials must show that a ban was created based off of more than a desire to avoid the discomfort that accompanies an unpopular point of view,  to justify prohibition of a particular expression of opinion

Here, the school failed to prove such a showing. In addition, there was no showing that wearing the black arm bands would substantially interfere with the work of the school or impinge upon the rights of other students. The ban also failed to apply equally to all forms of expression since other students were allowed to wear other forms of political speech without receiving a suspension.

Concurring or Dissenting opinion:

Dissenting (Black):

Today’s decision provides students with excessive power. The record indicates that the wearing of the black arm bands prompts negative attention from other students, and that one teacher’s class was wrecked by debates with one of the Tinker children. Such an occurrence can clearly divert other students’ attention from their studies. As a result, the school officials had the constitutional right to regulate the speech associated with wearing the black armbands


Tinker v. Des Moines established that the First Amendment protects the right of students to express controversial views when they may disagree with school policy but are not disruptive.

Student Resources: