Thirteen-year-old Mary Beth Tinker and her 15-year-old brother, John, felt that they had to do something. It was 1965, and thousands of U.S. troops were fighting in the Vietnam War—a war that Mary Beth and John both opposed.
“All the time, we were seeing on the news: war, war, war,” Mary Beth Tinker, now 66, says. “The bombings, the kids running from their huts screaming—it seemed like everything was on fire.”
In December of that year, Mary Beth Tinker walked into Warren Harding Junior High School, in Des Moines, Iowa, wearing a black armband. She wore it in protest of the war. That didn’t go over well with the school principal, who suspended her for violating school rules. John, their friend Christopher Eckhardt, and three others also wore the armbands. They were all suspended from their high school.
The question was: Did suspending the students violate their First Amendment right to free speech? The Tinkers, Eckhardt, and their parents thought so. They sued the school district with the backing of lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union (A.C.L.U.).
Four years later, in 1969, the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled 7-2 in favor of the students. The Court famously stated that students and teachers don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
The landmark case clarified that public school students have the right to voice their opinions. That is, as long as they’re not interfering with the ability of the school to function or disrupting the right of other students to learn.
Fifty years later, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District is considered the most important case on students and freedom of expression. It set the standard by which all students’ rights cases that have come after it are judged. It also paved the way for the school walkouts last year. Following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, students across the country protested to demand stricter gun laws.