John Tinker: The Black Armband Story

In the fall of 1965 I, along with several other public school students in Des Moines, Iowa, decided that we would wear black armbands to school to protest against the war in Vietnam. When the school authorities found out about our protest, they decided not to allow it. They said that for us to express an opinion against the war might cause other students to become disruptive, and possibly even to become violent.

We decided to wear the armbands to school even though the school authorities had prohibited us from wearing them. Although our wearing of the armbands did not lead to any violent or disruptive situations at school, we were suspended anyway.

On the advice of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union, we sued the Des Moines school board for violating our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech.

The judge of the US District Court in Des Moines decided in favor of the school administrators, saying that they had acted out of a reasonable concern for the safety of their schools. So we decided to appeal our case to the Eighth US Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. There the judges split evenly, four in our favor and four against. So we then appealed to the US Supreme Court to hear our case.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear our case, and afterward they decided in our favor, seven to two. Justice Abe Fortas, writing for the majority in Tinker v. Des Moines said,

"First Amendment rights, applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment, are available to teachers and students. It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

He went on to say,

"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, undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression. Any departure from absolute regimentation may cause trouble. Any variation from the majority's opinion may inspire fear. Any word spoken, in class, in the lunchroom, or on the campus, that deviates 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 freedom - this kind of openness - that is the basis of our national strength and of the independence and vigor of Americans who grow up and live in this relatively permissive, often disputatious, society."

As a result of the decision in our case, it is clear that students do have a right to non-disruptively express their opinions in school.

Because of my participation in Tinker v. Des Moines, each year I correspond with many students about the case. Often they are working on school projects, and have questions about our case. In some instances students feel that their First Amendment rights are being violated by their school, and they are looking for resources that may be useful to them.

And several times each year I am invited to speak about our case, how the First Amendment has been interpreted with regard to students, and most importantly, why First Amendment rights are fundamental to the health of our democracy.

Copyright 2006, ACLU of Massachusetts