Happy 50th Birthday to Students’ Free Speech Rights!
By Molly Tack-Hooper, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Pennsylvania
On February 24, 1969 — almost exactly 50 years ago — the Supreme Court decided that public school students’ free speech rights don’t disappear when they go to school.
That ruling grew out of John and Mary Beth Tinker’s decision to wear black armbands with peace signs to their public school in Des Moines, Iowa, to protest the war in Vietnam and mourn the dead. Their school had banned the armbands, and punished them for wearing the bands in spite of the ban. John and Mary Beth fought their suspension all the way to the Supreme Court, and won.
The armbands were controversial. One Supreme Court Justice observed that the armbands had led to discussion among students and warnings or ridicule by other students. Mary Beth’s math teacher said his lesson period was “practically wrecked” by debate sparked by the armbands. And they took many students’ minds off school and diverted their attention to the “highly emotional subject of the Vietnam war.”
But the Supreme Court ruled that that was not enough to justify censoring their speech. The Court said:
A student’s rights . . . do not embrace merely the classroom hours. When he is in the cafeteria, or on the playing field, or on the campus during the authorized hours, he may express his opinions, even on controversial subjects like the conflict in Vietnam, if he does so without “materially and substantially interfer[ing] with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school” and without colliding with the rights of others.
This was not the first time the Supreme Court stood up for students’ rights. In 1943, the Court ruled that students at public school have a constitutional right not to be forced to salute the flag. The Court explained that the First Amendment means that, even during wartime, public schools can’t force students to participate in symbolic acts of patriotism. The right to free speech also includes the right not to be forced to say things you don’t mean.
But Tinker v. Des Moines was the first time the Supreme Court laid down a broad, general rule to protect students’ rights not just to not be forced to say things they disagree with, but to speak…