A 1969 Fight For Students’ Free Speech Rights

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In 1969, a group of public school students protesting the Vietnam War made First Amendment history that stands strong to this day.

Mary Beth Tinker and John Tinker grew up in Iowa, where their father was a Methodist minister.

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

They 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 them and three others for wearing the armbands.

The Iowa Civil Liberties Union said that was a violation of their First Amendment rights and told them 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 them 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.

There are still limits on what students can do in public schools. Under the ruling, students can’t violate rules that aren’t targeted at expression, like attendance policies, as long as their school is applying the rules equally, regardless of whether students have broken them to protest or for other reasons. And students can’t “materially disrupt” the functioning of their school, though what’s considered disruptive can depend on the situation.

Over the years, students have protested everything from apartheid in South Africa to a ban on dancing. And of course there were 2018’s massive student protests that followed the shooting massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

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 important now more than ever.

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