When you think of the typical protestor during the 1960’s you think of someone being loud and demonstrative and most importantly, being an adult. In 1965, a group of teenagers protested the Vietnam war without saying a word and they forever changed how schools handle giving students the freedom to practice their First Amendment rights while on school property.
John Tinker was the oldest Tinker sibling at 15 years old. His younger sisters Mary and Hope, who were 13 and 11, as well as their younger brother Paul, age 8, were joined by their friend Christopher, age 16, in their decision to protest the war in December of 1965. But they didn’t stand out in front of the school with witty signs chanting anti-war sayings. They planned to wear a black armband to school. School officials found out about this plan on December 14 and proceeded to create a policy stating any children who wore an armband to school was to immediately remove it or they would be suspended until they agreed to follow the new rule.
The group knew the consequences but they went ahead with wearing the armbands anyways. Their plan was to wear the armband until January 1, 1966 but none of them made it more than a few days of wearing the bands before they were suspended or forced to stop wearing them. Mary and Christopher were suspended for wearing the armbands on December 16, John was suspended for the armband on December 17. The youngest two, Hope and Paul, were not punished.
That was going to be the end of it until they were approached by the Iowa Civil Liberties Union to file a suit against the school district for violating their rights. The Tinker family as well as Christopher’s parents filed suit in the U.S. District court. The District court upheld the school’s decision. They moved on to the U.S. Court of Appeals in the 8th Circuit and a tie vote resulted in upholding the U.S District court ruling. This forced both families to take their case to the Supreme Court directly. Two Des Moines residents, one being the president of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union and her businessman brother, funded the entire case for both families.
The Supreme Court had a 7-2 voting that held the First Amendment applied to public schools and administrators had to demonstrate constitutionally valid reasons for specific regulation of speech in classrooms. The Court found that wearing the armbands didn’t cause disruption and their wearing the armbands actively represented constitutionally protected symbolic speech. This case was the first time the Supreme Court set standards to protect public school student’s free speech rights.
Five young people in Des Moines changed how public schools in the United States handle their student’s constitutional rights. It was just a simple black armband but that’s all they needed to ensure that just because a student is at school, they will have the right to practice free speech.