1969 February 24

Mary Beth Tinker Wins Landmark Case on Students’ First Amendment Rights


Mary Beth Tinker, an 8th grader, had been suspended from school on December 16, 1965, for wearing a black armband to protest the Vietnam War. She was joined in the protest by her brother John, age 15, her sister Hope, age 11, her brother Paul, age 8, and their friend Christopher Eckhardt, age 16. The ACLU agreed to take their case, which reached the Supreme Court. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, decided on this day, the Supreme Court affirmed the First Amendment rights of students in U.S. public schools.

In addition to the Tinker case, the Vietnam War created a number of civil liberties crises. They include (1) the lack of a Congressional Declaration of War as required by the Constitution (June 3, 1970); (2) threats to freedom of the press in the Pentagon Papers case (June 30, 1971); (3) spying on the anti-war movement by the CIA (August 15, 1967); (4) threats to freedom of expression, for example high school student protests, as in the Tinker case; censorship of television programs (February 25, 1968); and directly and indirectly some of the events that led to the Watergate Scandal (May 9, 1969; January 27, 1972).

Justice Abe Fortas for the Court: “In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students in school, as well as out of school, are ‘persons’ under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the State. In our system, students may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate. They may not be confined to the expression of those sentiments that are officially approved.”

View an interview with Mary Beth Tinker, who tells her story about the case:

Read: John W. Johnson, The Struggle for Student Rights: Tinker v. Des Moines and the 1960s (1997).

Learn more: David L. Hudson, Let the Students Speak: A History of the Fight for Free Expression in American Schools (2011)

Listen to the oral arguments in the case: http://www.oyez.org/cases/1960-1969/1968/1968_21

Learn more about students’ rights: https://www.aclu.org/free-speech/student-speech

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