ACLU History: Public Schools

Document Date: September 1, 2010

In the first case to establish free speech rights for students, Tinker v. Des Moines, the ACLU represented Mary Beth Tinker and two other Des Moines junior high school students who had been suspended for wearing black armbands in school to protest the Vietnam War.

The Supreme Court declared in its landmark 1967 ruling that ‘…students or teachers [do not] shed their Constitutional rights to freedom of expression or speech at the schoolhouse gate.’ In his opinion, Justice Abe Fortas held that schools must not be ‘enclaves of totalitarianism’ – and with this declaration, spurred the development of a new body of constitutional law focusing on the rights of students. For example, throughout the 1960s and 70s, the ACLU and its affiliates handled hundreds of cases on behalf of male students suspended for wearing long hair – at the time considered by many to be a symbolic challenge to the establishment.

The ACLU also came to the defense of students expelled without a chance to challenge the reasons for their expulsion, and helped to establish important precedents giving students due process rights in such proceedings. The Supreme Court took up the issue in 1975 in Goss v. Lopez, a case involving the expulsions of Ohio students involved in incidents of racial unrest; the ACLU submitted a brief on behalf of the students, who were represented by the NAACP. The Justices agreed that students were entitled to minimal due process rights and, in the wake of that ruling, twelve states passed laws conforming to the Court’s mandate and extending student protections even further.

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» Tinker v. Des Moines (

» United States v. Lopez (

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