In early December 1965, a handful of members of a small Iowa peace group–mainly Quakers and Unitarians–met in a Des Moines home to discuss ways to demonstrate their opposition to America's escalating military activity in Southeast Asia. Without prompting from their parents, several of the young people attending the meeting made the decision to wear black armbands to school in order to express sorrow for casualties in the Vietnam War and to encourage a truce in hostilities. The armband demonstration took place on December 16 and 17, 1965. Only about sixty of the 18,000 students enrolled in the Des Moines public schools participated, and there was no serious disruption of school routine. School administrators, however, suspended a handful of the offending students for violating a hastily enacted school district rule that prohibited the classroom display of symbols of protest.
Represented by the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, three of the armband wearing students–Christopher Eckhardt, John Tinker and Mary Beth Tinker–challenged the school district's position in federal court. At the time, Christopher and John were fifteen-year-old high school sophomores; Mary Beth was thirteen and in the eighth grade. Although not as newsworthy as the raucous political demonstrations of the 1960s in other sections of the country, the Iowa armband protest and the civil liberties issues it raised eventually led to one of the U.S. Supreme Court's most significant decisions on CHILDREN'S RIGHTS.
In his 1969 opinion in Tinker v. Des Moines for the seven-member Supreme Court majority, Justice Abe Fortas held that the conduct of the armband wearing Iowa teenagers was "not substantially disruptive" of educational activities and, thus, constituted protected symbolic expression under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Justice Fortas submitted further that constitutional protections of free expression extend to young people even "inside the schoolhouse gate." Fortas had also written the Court's opinion in IN RE GAULT (1967), which held that full procedural rights should be accorded to youthful offenders appearing before JUVENILE COURTS. The tandem of opinions in Gault and Tinker made Fortas appear to be the Warren Court's designated spokesperson for children's rights.
In a biting dissent, Justice Hugo Black fulminated that "children should be seen and not heard." At a time when many older Americans were uncomfortable with student political expression, Justice Black's opinion served as a conservative bellwether; he received hundreds of letters praising his stand against classroom protests.
Since the 1960s, the Tinker precedent has been significantly qualified. For example, in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the administrative censorship of a Missouri high school newspaper, concluding that a school principal's decision to excise some student-bylined material was reasonably grounded in the law. Hazelwood notwithstanding, however, Justice Fortas'sopinions in Tinker v. Des Moines and In re Gault still remain key starting points for any discussions of children's rights in late twentieth century America.
Johnson, John W. 1997. The Struggle for Student Rights: Tinker v. Des Moines and the 1960s. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
JOHN W. JOHNSON