Tinker v. Des Moines - Landmark Supreme Court Ruling on Behalf of Student Expression

Mary Beth Tinker

Mary Beth Tinker was a 13-year-old junior high school student in December 1965 when she and a group of students decided to wear black armbands to school to protest the war in Vietnam. The school board got wind of the protest and passed a preemptive ban. When Mary Beth arrived at school on December 16, she was asked to remove the armband. When she refused, she was sent home.

Four other students were suspended, including her brother John Tinker and Chris Eckhardt. The students were told they could not return to school until they agreed to remove their armbands. The students returned to school after the Christmas break without armbands, but in protest wore black clothing for the remainder of the school year.

Represented by the ACLU, the students and their families embarked on a four-year court battle that culminated in the landmark Supreme Court decision: Tinker v. Des Moines. On February 24, 1969 the Court ruled 7-2 that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

The Court ruled that the First Amendment applied to public schools, and school officials could not censor student speech unless it disrupted the educational process. Because wearing a black armband was not disruptive, the Court held that the First Amendment protected the right of students to wear one. Read the Court's opinion


Tinker remains a frequently-cited Court precedent. In Morse v. Frederick, the Supreme Court will decide whether Tinker remains good law, and whether the First Amendment continues to protect the right of students to express controversial views that are not disruptive but may disagree with official school policy. 

On Morse v. Frederick:

"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." - Mary Beth Tinker

Mary Beth Tinker continues to educate young people about their rights, speaking frequently to student groups across the country. She is also active in directing the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project at American University, which mobilizes law students to teach courses on constitutional law and juvenile justice at public schools. Tinker is a registered nurse, an active leader in her union, and holds masters degrees in public health and nursing. In 2006, as a tribute to Tinker's devotion to the rights of young people, the ACLU National Board of Directors' Youth Affairs Committee renamed its annual youth affairs award, the "Mary Beth Tinker Youth Involvement Award."


Standing Up for the Rights of Students to Free Expression [BLOG]

Mary Beth Tinker on the 40th Anniversary of the Landmark Free Speech Decision [PODCAST]

All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go: Students and Their Parents Fight School Uniform Policies

ACLU Challenges Louisiana School's Ban on Armbands As Violation of Students' First Amendment Rights


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