Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District: Impact on Free Speech in Schools

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  • 0:02 Free Speech
  • 1:30 Tinker v. Des Moines
  • 3:18 Impact
  • 4:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

How much control do schools have over what students say and do? This lesson examines the First Amendment limits in education, and the court case (Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District) that changed those limits.

Free Speech

In the 1960s, America was at war with itself. People across the country were divided on the subject of the Vietnam War. Anti-war protestors demonstrated in every state, utilizing their First Amendment rights to express their disappointment at the bloodshed.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution offers Americans the right to freedom of expression without government interference. That is, if the government does something that a citizen doesn't agree with, the citizen has a right to speak up and say that they don't agree without worrying that they will be put in jail.

The courts have limited the scope of free expression, though, in certain cases. For example, yelling 'Fire!' in a crowded theater when there isn't really a fire is not protected by the First Amendment. This is because the stampede caused by yelling 'Fire!' could cause people to be seriously injured or even killed. So even though the First Amendment protects freedom of expression, there are some limits on it.

In the 60s, at the height of the anti-Vietnam War protests, the courts were faced with another question about the limits of the First Amendment. Specifically, people wondered, 'Do First Amendment rights extend to the classroom?'

Let's look at a landmark case regarding First Amendment rights in education, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, and its impact on modern education.

Tinker v. Des Moines

The year was 1965. Bellbottoms were in style, Bob Dylan was singing with an electric guitar, and people all over the country were protesting the Vietnam War.

People in Des Moines, Iowa, were no different from the rest of the country. Some people wanted to protest the war, and others supported it. Near the end of the year, high school students John Tinker and his friend Christopher Eckhardt, along with Tinker's younger siblings, decided to wear black armbands to school to protest the war.

The school district found out about the planned protest, and they prohibited it. But Tinker, Eckhardt, and the others wore the bands anyway. Though they didn't say anything out loud, they considered that the First Amendment, which protected their right of expression, covered the armbands.

The school didn't see it that way. The three oldest children were suspended from school for their armband protest.

That might have been the end of the story, but the students (with help from the American Civil Liberties Union) sued the school, and took the case all the way to the Supreme Court. They asked that their First Amendment rights be protected in school the same way that it would be on the streets of Des Moines.

The resulting case, called Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, changed the way schools and free expression interacted. In the past, court cases had favored the school districts, saying that students didn't have a right to express themselves within school grounds.

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