Students and the Constitution

Tinker v. Des Moines (1969)

Case background and primary source documents concerning the Supreme Court case of Tinker v. Des Moines. Dealing with students rights and the First Amendment’s protection of free speech, this lesson asks students to evaluate the extent to which the First Amendment should protect symbolic speech, and the degree to which that protection should be guaranteed to students in public schools.

Founding Principles

Freedom of Speech image

Freedom of Speech

The freedom to express one's opinions without interference from the the government is critical to the maintenance of liberty within a free society.

Case Background

The Vietnam War was one of the most controversial political issues of the 1960s. By 1965, the United States had large numbers of troops in Vietnam and many Americans had begun to question the wisdom of the war.

In December 1965, students John (age 15) and Mary Beth Tinker (age 13) decided they would have their say as part of a larger, community protest of the Vietnam War. Together with a friend, John and Mary Beth agreed to wear black armbands to school to mourn the dead and protest the War. Amid rumors of the planned protest, the School Board of the Des Moines Independent Community School District implemented a policy banning the wearing of armbands in school. Any offending students would be suspended. The three students continued with their plans and wore their armbands to school. All three were suspended until they agreed not to wear the armbands.

The Tinkers argued that by banning the armbands and suspending students for wearing them, public school officials had violated the First Amendment. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court in 1968. The Court had to address two central questions: 1) was the expressive behavior of the students an exercise of “speech” that warranted protection under the First Amendment’s speech guarantee? and 2) how can individual liberties be balanced with the need for discipline, the rights of others, and the “special characteristics” of the public school environment? (The decision would not apply to private schools.)

Do students keep their First Amendment rights when they enter school? This Homework Help video asks students to explore this question and decide for themselves.

Key Question

Evaluate the extent to which the First Amendment should protect symbolic speech, and the degree to which that protection should be guaranteed to students in public school.


Read the Case Background and Key Question. Then analyze Documents A-M. Finally, answer the Key Question in a well-organized essay that incorporates your interpretations of Documents A-M, as well as your own knowledge of history.


Documents you will examine:

  1. The First Amendment, 1791
  2. West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, 1943
  3. “Vietnam War Protesters Outside The White House,” 1965
  4. Three Examples of “Hate Mail” Received by the Tinker Family
  5. Oral Argument: The Tinkers’ Case, Tinker v. Des Moines, 1969
  6. Oral Argument: The School’s Case, Tinker v. Des Moines, 1969
  7. Majority Opinion (7-2), Tinker v. Des Moines, 1969
  8. Concurring Opinion, Tinker v. Des Moines, 1969
  9. Dissenting Opinion (Hugo Black), Tinker v. Des Moines, 1969
  10. Dissenting Opinion (John Marshall Harlan), Tinker v. Des Moines, 1969
  11. “Lorena, Paul, and Mary Beth Tinker,” 1969
  12. Dissenting Opinion, Street v. New York, 1969
  13. “A Symbolic Protest Mounted by Vietnam Veterans Against the War,” 1976

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