Petitioners, a group of students, refused to follow the school policy that prohibited wearing a black armband in protest of Vietnam war. They were suspended by the schools until they would come back without their armbands.
In order for the State in the person of school officials to justify prohibition of a particular expression of opinion, it must be able to show that its action was caused by something more than mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.
Petitioner John Tinker, 15 years old, and petitioner Christopher Eckhardt, 16 years old, attended high schools in Des Moines, Iowa. In 1965, a group of adults and students in Des Moines held a meeting at the Eckhardt home. The group determined to publicize their objection to the hostilities in Vietnam and their support for a truce by wearing black armbands during the holiday season and by fasting on December 16 and New Year’s Eve. Petitioners and decided to participate in that program. The principals of the Des Moines schools adopted a policy that asks students to remove the band. The petitioners refused and continued wearing black armbands to their schools. They were all suspended from school until they would come back without their armbands.
Does the school policy that requires students to remove black armbands when coming to school that they wore in protest of the Vietnam war violate the Constitution?
Yes, the district failed to make a finding that the school authorities had reason to anticipate that the wearing of the armbands would substantially interfere with the work of the school or impinge upon the rights of other students. On the contrary, the action of the school authorities appears to have been upon an urgent wish to avoid the controversy that might result from the expression, even by the silent symbol of armbands, of opposition to the Nation’s part in the conflagration in Vietnam.
The record overwhelmingly shows that the armbands did exactly what the elected school officials and principals foresaw they would, that is, took the students’ mind off their classwork and diverted them to thoughts about the highly emotional subject of the Vietnam war. If students are allowed to defy orders of school officials to keep their minds on their own schoolwork, it will trigger a new revolutionary era of permissiveness fostered by the judiciary.
There is no finding that engaging in the forbidden conduct would materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school. Also, the school authorities did not purport to prohibit the wearing of all symbols of political or controversial significance. Students in some of the schools wore buttons relating to national political campaigns and some even wore the Iron Cross, a symbol of Nazism. The order prohibiting the wearing of armbands did not extend to these. Instead, a particular symbol, black armbands, was singled out for prohibition. Clearly, the prohibition of expression of one particular opinion, at least without evidence that it is necessary to avoid material and substantial interference with school work or discipline, is not constitutionally permissible.