A few days before the armbands were worn by John Tinker, aged 15, his sister Mary Beth, aged 13, and their friend, Christopher Eckhardt, aged 16, the principals of Des Moines schools adopted a policy that any student who wore an armband would be asked to remove it, and would be sent home if he or she refused to do so. When they refused to take their armbands off, the three students were sent home. They did not return to school until after the planned period for the protest had expired.
The students then went to court, arguing that armbands were a form of symbolic speech and their First Amendment rights to freedom of expression had been violated by their suspensions. Both the district court and the appeals court said their constitutional rights had not been violated. But the US Supreme Court, with Justice Abe Fortas writing the majority opinion, disagreed. He declared: "In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students in school as well as out of school are 'persons' under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect..." Censoring student expression is impermissible, the court ruled, unless it "materially and substantially" disrupts the educational process or invades the rights of others. This restraint on student censorship is known as the "Tinker standard."