A group of students planned a public showing of their support for a truce in the Vietnam war. They decided to wear black armbands at school. In response, the school created a policy that stated that any student wearing an armband would be asked to remove it, with refusal to do so resulting in suspension. Several students were suspended as a result of wearing armbands at school.
The First Amendment applies to public schools. School officials may not censor student speech unless it disrupts the educational process.
In December 1965, a group of students in Des Moines planned a public showing of their support for a truce in the Vietnam war. They decided to wear black armbands throughout the holiday season and to fast on December 16 and New Year’s Eve. The principals of the Des Moines school learned of the plan and met on December 14 to create a policy that stated that any student wearing an armband would be asked to remove it, with refusal to do so resulting in suspension. On December 16, 2 of the students wore their armbands to school and were sent home. The following day, another student did the same and was sent home. The students did not return to school until after New Year’s Day, the planned end of the protest.
Does a prohibition against the wearing of armbands in public school, as a form of symbolic protest, violate the students’ freedom of speech protections guaranteed by the First Amendment?
Yes, a prohibition against the wearing of armbands in public school, as a form of symbolic protest, violates the students’ freedom of speech protections guaranteed by the First Amendment.
The First Amendment does not provide the right to express any opinion at any time anywhere. The armbands distracted students from their work and prevented the school officials from performing their other duties. As such, the school district was well within its rights in sending the students home and disciplining them.
School officials should be granted wide latitude to maintain order on school grounds, unless their actions can be proven to stem from a motivation other than a legitimate school interest.
Children are not necessarily guaranteed the full extent of First Amendment rights, as adults are.
The wearing of armbands in this case represents pure speech that is entirely separate from actually or potentially disruptive conduct by the participants. Pure speech is entitled to comprehensive protection under the First Amendment. Students do not lose their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech when they enter the school grounds.
In order to justify the suppression of speech, the school officials must be able to prove that the conduct in question would “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.” However, there is no evidence whatsoever of the students’ arm bands interfering with classes, and there were no threats or acts of violence on school premises as a result of the arm bands.