The Struggle for Students’ Rights: Tinker vs Des Moines


The Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District was declared in 1969. This was a decision that was made by the Supreme Court. It defined the constitutional rights of students in public schools in the United States. This Tinker test is still in use currently. It is used to check the nature of the disciplinary actions taken by schools. The actions should not violate the students’ First Amendment rights (Hafen, 1988). This paper seeks to address the context of education during that period, the philosophy behind the law and the influence of that law then and to the present.

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Context of education at that period

The education at the time seemed to have issues concerning the rights and freedoms of the students. This can be seen in the way the students who decided to make peaceful protests were handled and treated. The plan by the students to wear the black armbands to make their views public was known to the principals of Des Moines. This prompted them to meet and adopt a new policy that would control such activities from the students. Any student wearing such a band would be asked to remove it. If the student refused to remove it, he would be suspended until he decides to remove and abandon it. Petitioners became notified about the regulation (Johnson, 1997).

Three students, including John Tinker, decided to violate this regulation and they were suspended. They failed to return to school until New Year’s Day. This was when the wearing of the armband was scheduled to stop. The family of the students filed a suit in the United States District Court. The family attempted to seek justice and get the court to restrain the officials of the school and directors from punishing the petitioners. It also sought nominal damages. However, the court supported the decision by the schools and therefore dismissed the complaint.

The court claimed that it respected the action taken by the school because it was in the school’s constitution and it was meant to prevent any form of disruption to the school’s discipline. With this decision, the court was ignoring the Fifth Circuit. The court knew very well that wearing such symbols of expression like the armbands was only to be prohibited if it significantly interfered with the operations of the school. However, the action did not interrupt any operation in the school. It did not interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline. On appeal in the court of appeal, the court decided to affirm the decision made at the United States District Court (Johnson, 1997).

The United States Court knew that wearing bands in an attempt to pass certain messages was an example of an act that is provided for by law. It is in the Free Speech Clause. It is a symbolic activity of expression and the first amendment provided for its legalization.

The decision of the school to include a policy that would see the punishing of those who wore such armbands in protest to being punished was outright illegal. The passive expression of opinions by the students was in order. It did not disrupt any school activities. The activity did not even collide with the rights of the other students. Also, only a few students (five out of 18,000) were suspended. This is a relatively small number compared to the whole population and this means that no activity in the school or classes was disrupted. A few students made hostile remarks to those students wearing the bands but this did not lead to any form of violent actions such as those threatening the school’s facilities.

The philosophy behind the law

The philosophy behind the law provided by the Supreme Court was that the students had the right to free speech within the school. However, this was only to be allowed if the activity did not disrupt the normal processes in the school. This is the case because the civil rights of students do not end as they enter the school compound (Hafen, 1988). The decision made by the school seems to have been made out of fear of what would have become of the action of the students.

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However, fear is not reason enough to deny the students freedom of expression. The officials of the schools in Des Moines had to justify the action of suspending students who wore the armbands. They had to prove that their actions were fueled by better reasons other than a mere wish to prevent the discomfort caused by such unpopular views. They had to prove that there was substantial disturbance caused. If this proof is not provided by the school, then the prohibition cannot be sustained.

In the case of the school in question, the reasons why the officials acted in the way they did were not justified. The officials in the school did not have a reason to anticipate that the action of wearing bands to school would interfere with the activities of the school. It could not interfere with the rights of the rest of the student population in the school.

There was yet another failure of the policy enacted by the school’s officials. The policy was biased because it narrowed down and only prohibited the wearing of the armbands. It did not cross over to the other symbols that were worn to signify other viewpoints. There were students from other schools who wore other things (symbols) to stress a point (Majestic, 1991). Examples include the wearing of buttons that relate to political campaigns. In other cases, students wore the Iron Cross. This symbolized Nazism. The fact that the particular symbol of experience was singled out meant that it was not fair. This was also not constitutionally permissible.

In the United States, school officials are not allowed to act in a totalitarian manner. They do not have absolute power over the students since students are persons too. Every person has fundamental rights, which must be respected and upheld.

Influence of that law then and to the present

When the law was passed and enacted, it led to the realization of the student’s rights within the schools. Officials in schools also began to respect the student’s rights and freedom of expression as long as it did not interfere or disrupt the activities in the school. This law continues to be upheld to date and it governs the activities in school.


The Tinker v. Des Moines case law was about an issue whereby the officials in school prohibited students from wearing armbands. This was done in protest against the activities of the United States as it was involved in the Vietnamese war. Both the United States District Court and the Court of Appeal dropped the case but the Supreme Court supported the students and stated that the students too should have the freedom to express themselves.


Hafen, B. (1988). Hazelwood School District and the role of first amendment institutions. Duke Law Journal, 1988(4), 685-705.

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Johnson, J.W. (1997). The struggle for students’ rights: Tinker v. Des Moines and the 1960s. Kansas: University of Kansas Press.

Majestic, A.L. (1991). Student dress codes in the 1990s. Inquiry & Analysis, 1-9.

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