Free Speech in Schools: Tinker v Des Moines, School Censorship

This article explores the complexities of free speech in schools, focusing on the landmark Tinker v. Des Moines case and subsequent legal developments, providing a comprehensive guide for students, educators, and legal professionals on student speech rights and school censorship.

Free speech in schools is a complex and evolving area of law that balances the rights of students with the authority of school officials. The landmark Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) is a cornerstone in this legal landscape. This article provides a comprehensive guide to understanding free speech in schools, focusing on the Tinker case and subsequent developments in school censorship.


The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the right to free speech. However, the application of this right within the context of public schools has been the subject of extensive legal debate. The Tinker v. Des Moines case established significant precedents regarding the extent to which students can exercise free speech rights in schools.

Historical Background

The First Amendment

The First Amendment states:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

This amendment is the foundation of free speech rights in the United States.

Early Cases on Student Speech

Before Tinker, the Supreme Court had not definitively addressed the issue of student speech. Early cases such as West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943) dealt with related issues, such as the right of students to refuse to salute the flag, but did not establish a broad framework for student speech rights.

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District

Case Facts

In December 1965, a group of students in Des Moines, Iowa, decided to wear black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. The school district learned of the plan and preemptively adopted a policy banning the wearing of armbands. Despite the policy, Mary Beth Tinker, John Tinker, and Christopher Eckhardt wore armbands to school and were subsequently suspended.

The students, through their parents, filed a lawsuit against the school district, claiming that their First Amendment rights had been violated. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Decision

On February 24, 1969, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the students in a 7-2 decision. Justice Abe Fortas, writing for the majority, stated:

"It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

The Court held that students do not lose their First Amendment rights when they enter school. However, these rights are not absolute. The Court established the "substantial disruption" test, which allows schools to limit student speech if it would materially and substantially interfere with the operation of the school.

Impact of the Decision

The Tinker decision set a precedent for student free speech rights, emphasizing that students are entitled to express their views unless it disrupts the educational process. This case has been cited in numerous subsequent cases involving student speech.

Subsequent Developments in School Censorship

Bethel School District v. Fraser (1986)

In Bethel School District v. Fraser, the Supreme Court addressed the issue of lewd and indecent speech in schools. The Court upheld the suspension of a student who gave a sexually suggestive speech at a school assembly, distinguishing this type of speech from the political speech protected in Tinker.

Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988)

The Hazelwood case involved the censorship of a student newspaper. The Supreme Court ruled that schools could exercise editorial control over school-sponsored activities, such as newspapers, if their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns. This decision limited the scope of Tinker by allowing greater control over school-sponsored speech.

Morse v. Frederick (2007)

In Morse v. Frederick, the Supreme Court upheld the suspension of a student who displayed a banner reading "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS" during a school-supervised event. The Court ruled that schools could restrict student speech that promotes illegal drug use, further narrowing the protections established in Tinker.

The Substantial Disruption Test

The substantial disruption test, established in Tinker, remains a key standard for evaluating student speech. Under this test, schools can limit speech if it would cause a substantial disruption to the educational environment.

School-Sponsored Speech

Hazelwood introduced the concept of school-sponsored speech, which allows schools to regulate speech in school-sponsored activities. This includes newspapers, theatrical productions, and other activities that are part of the school curriculum.

Off-Campus Speech

The issue of off-campus speech has become increasingly relevant with the rise of social media. Courts have struggled to apply traditional standards to online speech that occurs off school grounds but has an impact on the school environment. Recent cases, such as Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. (2021), have begun to address these challenges.

State Laws and Regulations

In addition to federal constitutional protections, many states have enacted laws that provide additional protections for student speech. For example, California's Education Code Section 48907 guarantees students the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press in school-sponsored publications.

Limitations on Free Speech

While students have significant free speech rights, these rights are not unlimited. Schools can impose restrictions on speech that is obscene, lewd, promotes illegal activity, or causes a substantial disruption. Additionally, speech that infringes on the rights of others, such as bullying or harassment, can be regulated.

Practical Implications for Schools and Students

Guidelines for Schools

Schools should develop clear policies regarding student speech that comply with legal standards. These policies should balance the need to maintain an orderly educational environment with the rights of students to express their views.

Rights and Responsibilities of Students

Students should be aware of their rights and responsibilities regarding free speech. While they have the right to express their views, they must also respect the rights of others and adhere to school policies.


The issue of free speech in schools is a dynamic and evolving area of law. The Tinker v. Des Moines case established important protections for student speech, but subsequent cases have introduced limitations and nuances. Understanding the legal framework and its practical implications is essential for both schools and students.


  1. Tinker v. Des Moines | United States Courts
  2. Facts and Case Summary - Tinker v. Des Moines
  3. Tinker v. Des Moines School District
  4. Free Speech Protections in K-12 Public Schools (PDF)
  5. Protest Plans Submitted into Evidence during Landmark Tinker v. Des Moines Case
  6. Tinker v. Des Moines School Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969) (PDF)
  7. Regulating Students' Online Speech Under the First Amendment (PDF)
  8. Judges in the Classroom Lesson Plan - Washington Courts
  9. The Black Armbands Case: A Delicate Balance (PDF)
  10. Protecting Student Free Speech and Free Press Rights (PDF)

This comprehensive guide aims to provide a thorough understanding of free speech in schools, focusing on the landmark Tinker v. Des Moines case and its implications for school censorship. By exploring the legal framework, subsequent developments, and practical implications, this article seeks to inform students, educators, and legal professionals about the complexities of student speech rights.

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Von Wooding

Von Wooding

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