This Week in History, 1969: Tinker v. Des Moines Case Wins Free Speech Rights for Students
A 6th grader in Texas with the user name “Gummy Bear” pops onto my laptop screen. She’s doing a National History Day project about “rights and responsibilities” that highlights the Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines that I was a plaintiff in.
She wants to know why I wore a black armband to school in 8th grade in 1965, and why the court ruled on February 24, 1969, that neither students nor teachers “shed their Constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
I’ll talk about Mississippi Freedom Summer, which my parents took part in in 1964. Thanks to Professor Kristi Bowman, I know now how significant it was in the Tinker ruling, especially the “material and substantial disruption” exemption for student speech.
And, I’ll talk about Iowa in the 1950s and ’60s, when I grew up. Like now, more and more people were speaking up about the great economic and racial injustice.
One of them was my father, a Methodist minister. He complained to authorities about the local swimming pool’s “whites only” policy, and was removed from his church.
My mother saw that the local drugstore didn’t hire “negroes,” so she joined a picket line with her friend, Edna. When she started taking us kids along, it was exciting to stand up against “racial discrimination” by carrying signs and singing freedom songs.
In fact, lots of kids were standing up. In 1963, at age 10, I watched TV as the brave kids of the Birmingham Children’s March faced German shepherds and water hoses.
That summer, my sister went to the March on Washington with prize money she won in an NAACP essay contest on “What the Emancipation Proclamation Means to Me.”
The next summer, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) started Mississippi Freedom Summer. With white terrorism, only 5 percent of blacks were registered.
It was a huge success, leading to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, among other victories. But as the summer began, three youths were murdered by the Klan, and on August 4, the bodies of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were found.
The very same day, August 4, the U.S. Navy claimed that a ship had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin. The resulting congressional resolution escalated the Vietnam War.
On August 24, my parents went to Mississippi to volunteer with Freedom Summer. They returned with tales of Fannie Lou Hamer, love, and shootings. I turned 12.
That fall, Mississippi high school students protested the Freedom Summer killings with buttons saying “One Man, One Vote. SNCC.” They were suspended, and went to court.
By Christmas of 1965, it was my turn to speak up. Watching burning huts and soldiers in body bags on TV, my brothers and sisters and I joined other students to wear black armbands to mourn the dead. When we were suspended, the ACLU took the case.
As “Tinker” wound through the courts, the Burnside students won at the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1966. Soon after, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against us. With opposite rulings in similar cases, the stage was set for a Supreme Court appeal. Burnside was not appealed, but Tinker was, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear it.
The ruling in 1969 in our favor was a victory for all public school students. Citing Burnside, the court said a student “may express his opinions, even on controversial subjects” . . . if he does so without “materially and substantially interfer[ing] with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school” and without colliding with the rights of others. (Burnside v. Byars.)
Since Tinker, three Supreme Court rulings have cut back on the speech rights of students: Bethel v. Fraser, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, and Morse v. Fraser. But the basic precedent of Tinker remains—that students do have free speech rights in public schools.
So, here’s to Freedom Summer, and to young people who speak up for a better world. I’ve met so many as I travel this year with the Tinker Tour. You can learn more about it on our website, or follow us on twitter @tinkertour.