What if you were suspended from school because of something you were wearing? Not only was the clothing or item appropriate, it was something you were fighting for or something you believe is right. Is this fair or okay for this to happen? There is a specific incident that this situation happened to a few teenagers in Des Moines, Iowa in December of 1965. A group of students wanting to wear black armbands throughout the holiday season was in for a wake up call. (FORTAS) These plans and or idea were quickly shot down by the high school principals. The principals caught wind of the teen’s plan, so there was a meeting a few days beforehand. The talk of the meeting was to ensure the teens that if they were to wear the black armbands a few days from then, they would be asked to remove the bands, if they refused, suspension would be given.(KELLY) Is this a violation of the First Amendment?Order now
The first amendment states some of the freedoms we have. These are freedom of religion and freedom of expression. These include the right to free speech, press, assembly, and to petition the government. The reason for wanting to wear the black armbands was to show their anti-war belief in the Vietnam War. Rebelling against the authority figures’ ruling, three students wore the armbands and got suspended. The students’ names are John F. Tinker, who was 15 years old at the time, Christopher Eckhardt, 16 years old, and 13 year old Mary Beth Tinker (John’s younger sister). Getting suspended, the students did not return until after New Year’s Day (FORTAS). “This case was significant because the justices stated, “students do not abandon their civil rights at the school house door….” The school is not allowed to limit a student or teachers first amendment rights. Student and teachers are now able to freely express their first amendment rights as long as it does not cause a disturbance to the classroom or school. If students were shouting and protesting in classrooms, the school would be able to step in because it causes other students to be distracted from their schoolwork.” (CALAGNA)
Has freedom of speech changed since then? Some schools nowadays punish kids for online social media comments. (WHEELER) For example, if a student posts something on Facebook, and another kid comments on that status with a rude remark, the kid who posted it could take that to the principal’s office and the kid who commented on it could get in trouble. Some could say it was cyber-bullying, some could say it was just a witty/rude remark, not meant to be taken seriously. Is this a violation of free speech/expression? Another reason school authority figures have a lot of power over whether or not a student gets in trouble for what they say, posts, or wears, is that the school can discipline a student just because they personally or morally did not like the comment/post. Most of the time, the kids that get in trouble for something they post are in their own home, on their own laptop, during their free time outside of school. So why does the school have so much power over these situations the majority of the time? “The digital age, with its wonderful capacity to democratize speech, is so important to students’ rights, but also carries new and interesting threats to students’ rights,” Tinker says. “If we don’t encourage young people to use their First Amendment rights, our society is deprived of their creativity, energy, and new ideas. This is a huge loss, and also a human rights abuse.” (WHEELER)
Upset with the school’s decision to suspend their children for a harmless simple freedom of symbolic speech, the parents decided to take this case to court. Confused about why all this was happening John Tinker states “The school board was trying to suppress and did suppress the expression of our ideas.” “I was sure we were right. We’d been taught about the Constitution and I was sure we had the right .” (GOLD) March 14, 1966 the claim was filed into Iowa’s U.S. District Court by the student’s lawyer. The First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech, and the Fourteenth Amendment states not to deprive anyone of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. Since this was a civil case, there was not a jury. The judge decided the final ruling. (GOLD) Presenting the court with the evidence and information, the District Court dismissed the complaint, stating that the school’s actions had been a disturbance of school discipline. (BONNER) On February 24, 1969 the Supreme Court ruled that the students’ school had violated their right to free speech, by suspending them.
Justice Abe Fortas delivered the opinion of the Court. He states, “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.” (BONNER) Because the court ruled in favor of the students, and because this was a huge case during this time, many people came to learn that people (students) do have the right to free speech in schools, as long as it was harmless and did not disturb the learning process. The majority ruling stated, “…students do not abandon their civil rights at the school house door…” (KELLY)
Not only did this case affect just the school and Iowa, this particular case was used and presented in other cases. One specific case being, Morse V. Frederick. In this case Joseph Frederick was suspended in 2002 for displaying a sign saying “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” at a rally for the Olympic torch relay. The rally was an off-campus event not sponsored by Frederick’s school. A federal appeals court agreed with the ACLU that the school had violated Frederick’s right to free speech. (AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION) Mary Beth Tinker of Tinker V. Des Moines has a few words on the subject. “With that slogan, he’s proven once and for all that teens, with their creativity, curiosity and (to some), outrageous sense of humor, are naturals when it comes to holding the First Amendment to the test of time, even in these times,” says Mary Beth. (AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION) The court ruling was not in favor of Joseph, it was ruled against him and stated that the school district was not in violation of his free speech rights. Bong Hits 4 Jesus “was never meant to have any substantive meaning. It was certainly not intended as a drug or religious message. I conveyed this to the principal by explaining it was intended to be funny, subjectively interpreted by the reader and most importantly an exercise of my inalienable right to free speech,” says Frederick. (AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION) The Tinker V. Des Moines was the case that changed all future student speech cases from then on.
There are many different interpretations and perceptions on the first amendment. It’s a very broad amendment, especially because people can twist scenarios and meanings around. When a case involves these issues, it is taken seriously, and usually a very long trial because there is always so much information to get through and reasons and interpretations to consider.
Did either school district have the right to suspend or punish the students? I understand the reasoning behind both sides in each case. But I do think in the case of Tinker V. Des Moines, the students were in the right. I do not think the faculty members had the right to make the teens take off or prevent them from wearing the black armbands. They were anti-war, and wanted to show it by wearing the armbands in symbolic speech. They were not hurting anyone or disturbing anyone’s peace or learning process. In the Morse V. Frederick case, I don’t think Joseph Frederick should have done what he did, but then again it was outside of school, not even on the school district property. There are lines some people should not cross, and everyday someone crosses it, for whatever reason. I still think everyone has the right to do what makes them happy, and for them to fight for what they believe in. People have their reasons for the things they do or the things they don’t do. We as a society and congress, need to have rules, laws, and rights and have them specified and not have those shady grey areas that can easily be twisted around. It may take a while, but it is necessary for future incidents.
The government needs to inform the people about changes in the system concerning us and our well-being. Many cases I’ve read deal a lot with kids and teens and them not knowing exactly what is specified in the First Amendment and how they could get in trouble. In today’s world religion, free speech, politics, just about anything can be a controversial and an offensive touchy subject for many people today. This then defeats the purpose of our right to free speech. Because many people are afraid to get in trouble for something that they could potentially be scorned at for saying, a lot of people don’t express what they are feeling or truly believe in. On the other hand, there are tons of people who think and act on the complete opposite. All in all this case had a tremendous effect on what people thought or knew about the first amendment and the limits and restrictions it has, but that does not mean we the people have to stop doing what we believe in or stop talking.
ACLU. “American Civil Liberties Union.” American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU, 16 Mar. 2007. Web. 09 Apr. 2014.
“American Civil Liberties Union.” American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU, 27 Feb. 2007. Web. 11 Apr. 2014.
Bonner, Alice. “Education for Freedom Lesson 8 – Case Summary: Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.” Education for Freedom Lesson 8 – Case Summary: Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The Freedom Forum., 5 June 1990. Web. 11 Apr. 2014
Calagna, Codi. “Codi Calagna’s E-Journal.” Codi Calagna’s E-Journal: Pedagogical Blogging. Codi Calagna, 28 Nov. 2012. Web. 11 Apr. 2014.
Fortas, Justice. “Tinker v. Des Moines School District (1969).” Tinker v. Des Moines School District (1969). Independent Community School District, 5 Oct. 2009. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.
Gold, Susan D. Two Students Go to Court. Tinker V. Des Moines: Free Speech for Students. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 29-34. Print.
Kelly, Martin. “Tinker v. Des Moines.” About.com American History. American History, 7 Apr. 2014. Web. 11 Apr. 2014.
Wheeler, David R. “Do Students Still Have Free Speech in School?” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 07 Apr. 2014. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.