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Tinker v. Des Moines: Court Proceeding

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District is a historical case that was decided more than fifty years ago that discussed the limitation of rights provided by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. In this case, several students decided they wanted to wear black armbands to honor the dead soldiers in Vietnam even though the school prohibited it with a specific policy. The Supreme Court ruled that schools are allowed to make policies against expressions of opinions on campus only if there is significant evidence that the conduct can disrupt the learning process. The majority of judges decided that there was no substantial evidence that wearing armbands disrupted the learning process; thus, school authorities could not limit the rights of students provided by the First Amendment.

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While the court decision seemed adequate as neither teachers nor students leave their constitutional rights at the gate of the school, the case was associated with major controversy. It questioned schools’ authority to make rules to prevent possible disruptions using their best judgment. It also questions if students can make decisions for themselves and disobey school rules if they decide they were unconstitutional. The present paper aims at discussing the pros and cons of the ruling of the court case. I believe that even though students have freedom of speech rights, school authorities should be able to make rules to prevent disruption of the learning process even without evidence of such disruption. If the students decide that such regulations are unconstitutional, their parents should press charges against the school before disobeying the rules.

Pros and Cons

The issue brought up by the Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District case is associated with considerable controversy. Therefore, to form an opinion, a person needs to take a bird’s-eye view of the situation. Table 1 below provides a list of pros and cons of the Supreme Court ruling to examine the consequences of the decision from every angle.

Table 1. Pros and cons of the ruling

Pros Cons
The court case set the standard for school policymaking. Since the case school authorities realized that they could make a policy to suppress freedom of speech only if there is substantial evidence of disruption of the learning process or it invades the rights of other students. The ruling questioned the school’s authority to make rules using their best judgment. The problem with the decision is that school authorities can only react to issues that have already occurred. This implies that schools are limited in their ability to make policies that can prevent misconduct. In other words, school authorities need to allow disruption to happen before they can create policies against individual acts.
The ruling demonstrated the care of students’ rights in general. Before the Tinker Case, schools could set any kind of policies disregarding the Constitution. The case reminded everyone about their civil duties to defend democracy and fight the despotism of local policymakers that limit the rights granted by the US Constitution. The ruling stimulates disobeying the rules on the school campus. The decision indirectly demonstrates that it is acceptable to violate rules if students believe they limit their freedom of speech. The court ruling does not mention in any way that disobeying school policy based on personal judgment is not acceptable.
The decision made by the judges helped to understand that students are a special population that needs to accept certain limitations to their constitutional rights while on the campus of a public school. Even though the ruling defended students’ rights for freedom of speech, it also demonstrated that students and teachers need to accept certain limitations to their rights, as the primary goal of the school system is to provide knowledge and not be a platform for discussing political views. The case demonstrates that students should defend their rights. In the US, it is believed that students cannot make certain decisions for themselves. Instead, their parents or guardians act in their names and protect their rights. The Supreme Court’s ruling is inconsistent with this belief.
The court case draws a connection between the rights of students and the rights of teachers, which set a precedent for future cases. The case puts the judgment of a group of teenagers above the opinion of school authorities.

As seen in Table 1, the court case caused the emergence of several dilemmas. First, is it acceptable to implement policies in good faith that they can prevent disruption of the learning process? If it is acceptable to prohibit firearms at school, why black armbands should be allowed? Second, when should the students be able to disobey the school rules even if they believe they violate their rights? Should they not first try to negotiate the issue if there is no direct threat to the health and well-being of students? Finally, where is the thin line between civil disobedience and rebellion of adolescents? Who should distinguish between these two matters?

Personal Opinion

I cannot entirely agree with the decision of the case, as school authorities need to have the ability to implement school policy in good faith that it can prevent disruption for the learning process. Even though no evidence wearing black armbands caused significant disruption, school authorities used their best judgment to avoid these disruptions from happening. The fact that a math lesson was ruined and some students engaged in fighting was the confirmation that if the students continued to disobey the rule, such disruptions would continue. At the same, I believe that disobeying the rules also disrupts the learning process, as students become increasingly concerned about why it is acceptable for some students to break the rules. Students can start to wonder which rules are acceptable and which can be broken, which takes their attention away from classes. If students begin to think that they are capable of questioning the rules set by authoritative adults, it will lead to lawlessness. I do not want to question the decision of the judges in the specific case; however, I am not at all convinced that the court decision can be used as a precedent. The authorities of Des Moines Independent Community School District may have been scared for no reason; however, this does not mean that the situation would repeat itself in other schools.

Student Discussion

Based on the discussion the students had before the ruling, it may be said that students understood the complexity of the issue. The only student who believed that schools should be able to limit the freedom of speech based on their best judgment pointed out that students, parents, and school authorities have the same goals: to ensure the provision of the best quality education (Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit, 2019, 42:50). Restricting time, place, and method of expressing views is something a reasonable school board would do. When students talked about the ruling, they went deep into the discussion of what was disruptive behavior in itself, trying to draw the line between disruptive behavior and actions that can lead to disruptive behavior (Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit, 2019, 46:30). Thus, the program was successful in helping the students understand the controversy behind the court case.

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Judicial Branch Takeaways

After watching the video, I would like my students to understand the importance of court decisions and the responsibility put on the judges. I want them to be able to see that even though the judges rule on a specific case, the ruling is often used as a precedent for further similar situations. Therefore, the Supreme Court judges need to be very specific to avoid misunderstanding. Additionally, I would love my students to realize the complexity and fairness of the US judiciary system, as people always have the right to appeal the decisions of lower courts in the court of appeals, or the Supreme Court.

Conclusion

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District is a historic Supreme Court Ruling that set the standard for school authorities about implementing policies. Even though the court ruled in favor of Tinker, there are many controversies associated with the case that was acknowledged by the dissenting opinion of Judge Black. I cannot entirely agree with the ruling because I believe that schools should be able to prevent disruptive behavior using the best judgment.

References

Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit. (2019). Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District [Video file]. YouTube. Web.

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StudyCorgi. (2022) 'Tinker v. Des Moines: Court Proceeding'. 5 July.

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