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Case Summary:
Tinker v. Des Moines (1969)

Student Speech

Two students hold black arm bands with peace signs.

Striking students poured out of schools recently for the Global Climate Strike. If one of those students had shown up in school that morning (as many likely did) wearing a shirt protesting the U.S.’s recent environmental deregulations, they would have been free to do so. That freedom stems from the ruling in a 1969 case in which a group of students wore black armbands to school in order to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Their Des Moines high school enacted a policy in response that any student wearing an armband to school would be suspended. Several of the students were sent home, and their parents helped them to file suit alleging that their freedom of expression was being violated. While the District Court and the Court of Appeals found that the school’s actions were reasonable in order to maintain school discipline, the Supreme Court disagreed.

In a 7-2 ruling, written by Justice Abe Fortas, the court found that students did not lose their rights to freedom of speech when stepping onto school property. For a school to control student speech, the student’s conduct had to “materially and substantially interfere” with school functions. A fear of disruptions would not be enough reason to limit speech, only actual interference. As for whether leaving school for the Global Climate Strike was actual interference? That’s up to the schools to decide.

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