A Supreme Court Milestone for Students’ Free Speech Rights

This month marks 50 years since the landmark Supreme Court ruling that cemented students’ rights to free speech in public schools, Tinker v. Des Moines. We’re inspired to see that students still take advantage of their First Amendment rights and speak out on political issues today.

We grew up in Iowa, where our father was a Methodist minister. Believing that faith should be put into action, our parents involved all of us kids in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, and later with the Quakers. We never could have imagined that this family tradition of civic engagement would make us central players in one of the most consequential Supreme Court cases about students and free speech ever brought by the ACLU.

When we were teenagers in 1965, we started to see horrific news about the escalating war in Vietnam, thanks to the brave journalists reporting there. And we knew that young people in Des Moines were being to be sent to war, and some were coming home in coffins.

A small group of students wanted to do something about it. We decided to wear black armbands to school to send a message of mourning for the dead in Vietnam on both sides and support for a Christmas truce. The school suspended five of us for wearing the armbands.

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The Iowa Civil Liberties Union said that was a violation of our First Amendment rights and told us to try to negotiate with the school board to change the policy. When the board voted to continue the ban on armbands, the national ACLU took the case to court on behalf of us and another student, Chris Eckhardt.

Dan Johnston, a young lawyer also from Des Moines and just out of law school, argued the case. After defeats at the lower courts, he won 7-2 at the Supreme Court on February 24, 1969. “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” the majority opinion said.

The court went on to affirm the freedom that young people have under the Constitution:

In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students… are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the State. In our system, students may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate. They may not be confined to the expression of those sentiments that are officially approved. In the absence of a specific showing of constitutionally valid reasons to regulate their speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views.

There are still limits on what students can do in public school. Students can’t “materially disrupt” the functioning of their school or “intrude upon the rights of others” — though what’s considered to meet those standards can depend on the situation.

Over the years, students have protested everything from apartheid in South Africa to a ban on dancing. Students with Black Lives Matter have inspired countless young people and adults by standing up for racial justice. And of course there were 2018’s massive student protests that followed the shooting massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Sometimes, the ACLU has had to get involved to make sure that schools respect student speech, successfully defending the right of students to wear an anti-abortion armbanda pro-LGBT T-shirt, and shirts critical of political figures. The ACLU has even defended the rights of high school students who wanted to protest the ACLU.

Social media has provided even more opportunities for students to make their voices heard — although some schools have attempted to extend their power to punish students for speaking off-campus and outside school hours.

Schools aren’t supposed to only teach things like math and science — they’re also supposed to prepare students to participate in society. The ability to speak out and make up your own mind through freedom of expression lies at the core of what it means to live in our society, and it wouldn’t make sense for public schools to try to stop students from learning to exercise their speech rights. A half century after the Supreme Court recognized that truth, it’s as important now as ever.

To mark the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s historic ruling, we’re travelling to Iowa for series of events including a livestream by Iowa Public TV on February 22. We’re being joined for part of it by journalism students and advisers from Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who are collecting stories of how students are using their First Amendment rights as part of the Schoolhouse Gate Project.

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Ms. Gloria Anasyrma

What if they had an arm band with a Swastika on it? Would the ACLU be so quick to defend them?
I once wore an arm band with a Mogen David on it and the authorities tried to give me a hard time about it. I told them it was an advertisement for Mogen David brand wine and they backed down.


what i find amusing about this that this organization supports free speech for kids but argues that kids are too immature to be punished when they commit serious crimes.
If they are too immature to be punished for committing serious crimes, they are too immature to utilize the 1st amendment.

Margaret MZ

I think what links the ACLU's stances on these two issues is a commitment to supporting the developing youth. Youth may exercise free speech since in that way they learn civic participation and their role in a government that, if not a true democracy, has key democratic elements. Youth who have committed serious crimes may be directed into rehabilitation or educational programs since similarly they learn ways to participate in society that are more productive for themselves and for their communities.


It's ignoble that you see a moral equivalency to free speech for kids, and committing of serious crimes. They are mutually exclusive.

Ron Jones

Keep up the good work, ACLU. It's good to know that you keep working to advance this country to a brighter future.



TO: Donald Trump

White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Washington, D.C 2O5OO

Dear Donald,
Your national emergency  declaration at the U.S.-Mexico border is a SHAM.

The only crisis at the border is the crisis of  YOUR CREATION: 

Asylum-seeking families are being separated and children are being taken from the arms of their parents.

So today, I’m making my voice heard. I’m sending in a donation to elect more Democrats and make sure you NEVER create another fake crisis to further your hateful agenda:

This “national emergency” is just another one of your fear-mongering tactics.

In case you didn’t notice, there are REAL national emergencies in our country:

Americans are rationing their medication due to rising drug prices.

THOUSANDS of people are dying each year from gun violence.

AND: climate change is threatening our safety and security!

By spinning our border as a “crisis” just to get what you want...this ISN’T how our democracy is meant to work.

I’ve had ENOUGH of your shameful agenda. That’s why I am making continuous donations  to make sure we elect more Democrats who will fight your agenda tooth and nail:


An outraged American.

(If you agree then copy and send out)


Thank you for the work you did in the sixties to keep the first Amendment strong and thanks for what you are doing now!


ACLU - I hope you're defending everyone's free speech on campuses.


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