Tinker v. Des Moines

“It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

 Justice Abe Fortas

Mary Beth Tinker and her brother, John display two black armbands, which got them suspended and led to the landmark Court case | source: Bettmann—Getty Images
John and Mary Beth Tinker at North High School on February 21, 2019 as part of the Tinker Tour to mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Tinker v Des Moines Independent Community Schools. | Source: Des Moines Public Schools
Mary Beth Tinker's suspension letter | Source: tinkertourusa.org
Antiwar March outside Crisler Arena on the University of Michigan Campus, September 20, 1969. | Source: The Detroit News Collection, Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.
Mary Beth Tinker and her brother, John display two black armbands, which got them suspended and led to the landmark Court case | source: Bettmann—Getty Images
John and Mary Beth Tinker at North High School on February 21, 2019 as part of the Tinker Tour to mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Tinker v Des Moines Independent Community Schools. | Source: Des Moines Public Schools
Mary Beth Tinker's suspension letter | Source: tinkertourusa.org
Antiwar March outside Crisler Arena on the University of Michigan Campus, September 20, 1969. | Source: The Detroit News Collection, Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

Tinker V. Des Moines

Essential Questions

The following essential questions provide a framework for exploring this unit’s main ideas and themes:

  • What limits to freedom of expression are acceptable in educational settings?
  • What are some current examples of speech that might be contested in school settings?

New Jersey Student Learning Standards

The materials and suggested lesson plan below satisfy the following New Jersey Student Learning Standards:

6.1.12.CivicsPR.10.a: Analyze how the Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution to define and expand individual rights and use evidence to document the long-term impact of these decisions on the protection of civil and human rights.

6.1.12.CivicsPI.14.c: Analyze how the Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution to define and expand individual rights and use evidence to document the long-term impact of these decisions on the protection of civil and human rights.

Lesson Module

Goal and Learning Objectives: The goal of this lesson module is to provide resources and activities related to students’ First Amendment protections in the U.S. for high school teachers to implement in their classrooms. Studying Tinker v. Des Moines offers students an opportunity to examine young people’s roles at critical points in the nation’s history and to think about the impact of young people’s voices and influence on politics in our time.

Content: Included in this module are suggested activities, discussion questions, infographics, and other resources designed to help teachers and students explore issues related to First Amendment protections for students in school settings. These activities and lesson materials can be integrated into a variety of classes, including U.S. history, politics, and civics.

Activity I: History

Context: By the end of 1965, the U.S. had deployed over 400,000 troops to Vietnam despite the war’s increased opposition. Students around the country employed many modes of protest to show their opposition to the United States’ role in the Vietnam War. Mary Beth Tinker (age 13), her brother John Tinker (age 15), and Christopher Eckhardt (age 16) decided to wear black armbands to school as a silent, symbolic protest to mourn those who had died in Vietnam. They were suspended on the grounds that their armbands created a “distracting influence” on education and that they had “disturbed the peace.”

The Tinkers and Eckhardt challenged this decision in district court, where the court ruled in favor of the school district. The case moved to the court of appeals, which was deadlocked. The case rose all the way to the Supreme Court in 1969. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the Supreme Court ruled that the prohibition against the wearing of armbands violated the students’ freedom of speech protections guaranteed by the First Amendment. In the 7-2 ruling, Justice Fortas made the now-famous declaration that students and teachers do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Instructions: Use the timeline to introduce the class to the Tinker case, and if time permits, use the powerpoint presentation to give a quick introduction and summary of the case. 

Activity II: Key Figures

Instructions: This activity gives students the opportunity to learn about the key figures involved in the Tinker v. Des Moines case. Divide the class into small groups and have them discuss the figures on our Key Figures page and the downloadable PDF with more information. Have the groups review the pictures from Mary Beth Tinker’s recent visit to Rutgers as well as the Daily Targum article about her visit . Have students answer and think through the discussion questions and then share their answers and thoughts with the whole class. 

Key Figures

  • Who were the key figures involved in this case? 
  • What can we learn from the students? 
  • What can we learn from the justices?

In March 2020, Mary Beth Tinker spoke at the “Pizza and Politics: A Student’s Right to Free Speech” event hosted by the Center for Youth Political Participation at the Eagleton Institute of Politics. Click here to read about her visit, and visit our Facebook page to see photos from the event!

  • When speaking to Rutgers students, Mary Beth Tinker said: “maybe I could tell these kids about that case and my experience of speaking up, and then I could encourage them to speak up because young people are so powerful when they advocate for themselves.” In what ways can students become engaged in civics at school today?

Activity III: Tying It All Together - Freedom of Speech

Instructions: Have students break into groups and explore the arguments made by the Supreme Court using the primary sources on the sidebar. Have them answer the discussion questions below:

  • Do you think the Supreme Court made the right decision in Tinker v. Des Moines?
    • consider both sides – what are some arguments for and against allowing the student’s to wear the armbands?
  • What forms of student speech/protest do you think could (or should) be protected in schools today because of the Tinker decision?
    • think of recent youth let protests
  • If time permits, assign groups to read either to the majority opinion or the dissent and defend the legal reasoning for their respective sides.

Activity IV: Hands on Activity 

Instructions: Have your class brainstorm current issues (like climate change, gun control, etc) affecting youth. Break them into groups and give them a topic (or let them choose) for which they will create materials they might use or wear at a protest or demonstration. As they do this, have students think through the following questions:

  • Think about your cause and design materials (such as buttons, arm bands, banners, or signs) that you would want to display at school
  • in addition to making the materials, make an action plan for how and when you would carry out these activities. 
  • Why did you select this cause?
  • In Tinker, the Court ruled that schools can only limit speech if it “materially and substantially interferes” with the day to day operations of the school. Is it important to you that your protest meet the criteria for speech as laid out in Tinker? Why or why not?

All Lesson Materials

Don’t have time to use these activities? Do you already have a lesson plan for Tinker?

Here are links to the materials presented in the above activities that can be used anyway you see fit!

Timeline of Tinker v. Des Moines

Key Figures

Presentation Slides

For more resources, check out the sidebar to find primary sources, document analysis resources, and video content.