Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist.

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In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969), the U.S. Supreme Court established a powerful new free speech right for students in public school. The Court famously proclaimed that neither students nor teachers "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." Id. at 506.

The case was a lawsuit against a school for punishing several students for wearing black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. Id. at 504. Determining that the punishment infringed the students' First Amendment rights, the U.S. Supreme Court established new protection for free speech by public school students:[1]

"Where there is no finding and no showing that engaging in the forbidden conduct would materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school, the prohibition cannot be sustained."
"[The school] must be able to show that its action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint."

The Court did not grant students an absolute free speech right, however. The Court said that the First Amendment rights of students and teachers must be "applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment." Id. at 506. In that special light, school officials may be justified in prohibiting particular expressions where there is a showing that engaging in the forbidden conduct would "materially and substantially interfere with . . . appropriate discipline in the operation of a school." Id. at 509.

Justice Hugo Black dissented by criticizing how the Court was "subjecting all the public schools in the country to the whims and caprices of their loudest-mouthed, but maybe not their brightest, students." Id. at 525. Justice Black emphasized the instructive purpose of schools: "Taxpayers send children to school on the premise that at their age they need to learn, not teach." Id. at 522. Justice Black criticized that the Court's decision "surrendered control of the American public school system to public school students." Id. at 526.

Subsequent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court have limited free speech rights in school, including:

  • Bethel School Dist. No. 403 v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675, 677, 678, 685 (1986) ("A high school assembly or classroom is no place for a sexually explicit monologue directed towards an unsuspecting audience of teenage students").
  • Hazelwood School Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260, 271, 273 (1988) (holding that newspapers and similar school-sponsored activities are "part of the school curriculum" and held that "educators are entitled to exercise greater control over" these forms of student expression, and thus for school-sponsored activities, schools may impose regulations of student speech that are "reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns").
  • Morse v. Frederick, 127 S. Ct. 2618 (2007) (allowing schools to censor student speech that might encourage illegal drug use)


  1. Id. at 509 (internal quotation marks omitted).