Tinker v. Des Moines

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

answered by John Tinker

Throughout the school year students frequently write to me about Tinker v. Des Moines. Usually they are working on school projects that are related to the case. It is understandable that certain questions tend to be asked frequently.

In the interest of providing background material for students researching Tinker v. Des Moines, I am taking this opportunity to collect a number of questions that have already been asked, along with my answers.

This "frequently asked questions" (FAQ) list is not intended to dissuade them from contacting me with questions that are not found in this list.

I hope by reading the questions that have already been asked, and my answers, that students will have their interest piqued, and perhaps have new questions that are not yet on this list.

Questions students have asked:

school projects

Would you be willing to help me with my school project?
Yes, I will be very happy to help you with your school project.
Can you provide photos related to the case?
Unfortunately I do not have any photos related to the case. I do not own rights to the photos that areavailable through various websites and other sources.
Do you have contact information for other participants in the case?
Mary Beth Tinker's email address is: mtinke@sbcglobal.net.

Christopher Eckhardt's email address is: r25288@yahoo.com. I'm sorry, but I do not have contact information for our lawyer in the case, Dan Johnston. (If anyone has this, please let me know.)

You can write to me (John Tinker) at: editor@schema-root.org.

What further research resources would you recommend?
I maintain a webpage containing current news stories related to Tinker v. Des Moines
. It also has links to some of the best websites related to the case that I am aware of.

our protest

What impact did the 1965 march on Washington have on you?
It made a great impression on me. In Iowa, people who were part of the Peace Movement were a small minority. I was used to the idea that my beliefs were not very widely appreciated by the majority of the people. But then, when I was in that huge crowd in Washington, it felt great to be surrounded by so many people who thought that the war Vietnam should be ended. So it was very encouraging to me personally.

The main impression of being in that crowd in D.C. was the realization of the vast numbers of people who thought that the U.S. should not be in Vietnam. I had been aware of the small percentage of people who thought like I did about the issue. But the march in Washington drew from such a large area, that even a small percentage turned into a great number of people. I had never seen so many people together in one place before.

Coming home on the bus the group as a whole was discussing how to continue the protest against the war. An Iowa Quaker named Herbert Hoover (a distant cousin of the president) mentioned, I believe, that he had heard of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) plan to wear armbands. As far as I know, that was the origin of the armband idea. But we were not members of SDS.

Four people on that bus trip, Bruce Clark, Ross Peterson, Chris Eckhardt and myself, were members of a Unitarian youth group in Des Moines called Liberal Religous Youth (LRY). Bruce and Ross told the rest of the LRY about the idea of wearing armbands to protest the war. We discussed it, and decided to do it as a group.

Did you want your protest to spread to other schools?
Yes. I would have been happy for the protest against the war to spread throughout the whole country.
If violence would have occured do you think the administration would have right to ban the armabands?
We were very clear about the nonviolent nature of our protest. If others had been violent toward us, I think it would have been the responsibility of the administration to deal with those who were being violent.

We cannot allow violent people to prevent nonviolent people from protesting.

Did you feel more strongly that your rights were violated, or about the war?
I felt more strongly about the war. I did feel that our rights were violated, but that was a secondary matter. I was mostly interested in communicating my opinion about the war. Freedom of speech was a tool, not the message. But it was, and is, a very important tool. Especially for people who feel that they have something to say.

I am a very strong believer in the fundamental importance of freedom of speech to democracy, and to peacefully working out the problems of the world at large.

Why was Mary Beth suspended when she willingly took off the armband?
That brings into question the real motivations of the school authorities, at least in her case. In my case, was told that if I took off the armband and went back to class, it would all be forgotten. Chris Eckhardt went to school and reported directly to the office, because he knew he was going to be kicked out. The assistant vice principal even threatened him physically.

Although the they claimed in court that they were trying to avoid a disruption, my opinion is that I do not think that was their real motivation.

When there is a war going on, a certain mindset develops in the population, and is encouraged by those who wish to make the war.

There are people who consider themselves to be super-patriots, and who feel like they must punish and suppress anyone who disagrees with them about the desirability of making war.

The whole country was going through something like that in 1965. The school administrators may have felt that if they allowed their students to express opinions against the war, that they themselves, the administrators, would be seen as unpatriotic. I think they may have acted essentially out of fear, not of disruption, but for the security of their own positions.

the decision

What was the outcome of the case?
The Supreme Court decided 7-2 in our favor. It established that public school students have First Amendment rights unless there is a real threat of violence or a substantial disruption to the educational environment.
Is the decision in Tinker v. Des Moines respected by school authorities?
It is a big country, and the situations are different in different school districts. Some schools want their students to know what their rights are, and to exercize their rights.

But other schools apparently do not want that. At one school in Dearborn, Michigan, the principal actually misrepresented the case to a student, quoting to the student from Justice Black's dissenting opinion. (Luckily the student had studied our case on his own, and knew that what the principal was saying was not true.)

our family

What motivated your family to be so active in civil rights?
My mother grew up in South Texas, which was a pretty racist society at the time. I suspect that back then many white people did not really notice their own racism. But my mother's parents (my maternal grandparents) had grown up in Pennsylvania, and they noticed the racism in South Texas. My grandparents refused to treat black people badly. As my mother grew up, she was aware of when black people were being mistreated, and she felt really sad when she saw it happen.

My father grew up in Upstate New York. When my parents met at college and decided to get married, they decided to move to Iowa as a compromise, to be about halfway between Texas and New York.

When I was a small child, my father was a Methodist minister in the small town of Atlantic, Iowa. There was only one black family in town, but they were not allowed to use the swimming pool. My mother was the leader of the church youth group, and she suggested that the youth group contact the city council, and ask them to allow the black family to use the swimming pool. But the city council refused, and my father's church asked him to leave, because they said that he was causing trouble.

So we moved to Des Moines, where my father became a minister at another church. It was in a mixed race neighborhood, but none of the black people came to our church. So my mother invited some of them to come to church, and they did. But the white people at that church still had some racist attitudes, and they asked my father to leave there, too.

At that point the Quakers asked my father to come work for them. They were quite happy to have someone who cared so much about civil rights. They gave him the job title of Peace Education Secretary. Once, as part of his job, he once helpled arranged for Martin Luther King to come to Des Moines to give a speech.

What motivated your family to bring a lawsuit?
We contacted a lawyer from the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, and he thought we had a case. We felt strongly that we had acted out of conscience, and that we had been very reasonable and civil in our protest. We had not been disruptive. We felt that we were within our rights to do what we had done. We felt that the society would be worse off if the school systems were to be permitted to act as they had.
Was there a lot of stress on your family?
In retrospect, the answer to that is yes. At the time, however, it all seemed kind of normal for us. I would say that the stress did not come from the lawsuit, so much as from a misunderstanding of the Civil Rights Movement and the Peace Movement by the society in general. Social change means confronting "the powers that be." And they had access to mass media that we did not have.

The opinions of middle America were largely influenced by a relatively few major media channels, while we were trying to influence the opinions of middle America from the grassroots, up. It was a power struggle, and so it was stressful. But both of my parents were very strong, in their own ways. I learned from them that not all power does its work from the top down.

our town

What was the reaction of the town to the protest, the suit, and the fact that you won?
The reaction in Des Moines at the time was mixed. The Des Moines Register wrote an editorial agreeing that we had the right to do what we did. But plenty of people disagreed with us, too.

After we won, I think more people came to realize that the decision of the Supreme Court good. And I think the teachers and administrators of the Des Moines public school system are generally proud of what we did. We have been welcomed back a number of times to visit with classes.

Would you do it again?
I hope I would. I think so. But real world situations do not always happen the way one imagines they might. Real acts of conscience are often not easy. Other than the anxiety I experienced the day I wore the armband, our case was not emotionally difficult for me. But there is no guarantee that the consequences of other acts of conscience will not be painful. On the other hand, there are many rewards that come from doing what you really think is the right thing to do. Looking around the world, it is easy to find people who have suffered greatly, both emotionally and physically, for doing what they felt they must do.
Would you allow your children to wear armbands?
Absolutely. I would lose a few points if I didn't, wouldn't I?
When did you realize that it would become an important case?
For a long time I didn't realize that our case would become a important free speech precedent for public school students and teachers. Our motivation was to work against the war. It was only secondarily that the free speech issue was an issue for us. But the free speech issue is now what makes Tinker v. Des Moines important for the whole society.
Were you ever unsure of your decision to continue?
Dan Johnston, our lawyer, really did most of the work. The kids and teachers at school didn't make a big deal out of it while it was in the legal process. For me, pursuing the case was not stressful.
Would you do thinks differently, if you had another chance?
Looking back, I think things went pretty well. There have been a few second thoughts about only asking for one dollar, ha. But, all things considered, everything and everyone worked pretty well together. If we would have been more aggressive, perhaps it wouldn't have come across as well that our protest was entirely non-disruptive. If we had been less assertive, I wonder if we would have reached the Supreme Court.
How did the other students feel about you wearing the armband?
There were mixed reactions. Some students and teachers were critical. Some said we were dupes of Communists. Some actually said that we were probably Communists ourselves. Others said that we were not being patriotic.

Probably most students did not feel very strongly one way or the other. Many students who disagreed with us about the war still thought that we should have the right to express our opinion.

And some students - and teachers - supported what we had done, and agreed with us about being against the war.

Why did you appeal the lower court decisions?
We thought that we were right. We had strong opinions about the war, and we thought that the Constitution protected our right to express our opinions.
Did you think you would win?
I thought we would win in the first court, the Federal District Court in Des Moines. But, of course, we didn't. Then I thought that we would win at the Court of Appeals in St. Louis. But they split 4-4, and so the decision of the lower court was upheld. I did expect that we would win at the US Supreme Court, but it surprised me that it was by 7-2 in our favor.

The reason I felt confident that we would win, was that I couldn't imagine that students could be forbidden from wearing such things as political buttons and religous symbols, which in my mind were analogous to our black armbands.

Do you think you would win if the case were brought to court today?
This is a very good question. Unfortunately I may not be the best person to answer it. If a similar case came before the Court today, I do think that the Court would uphold Tinker v. Des Moines. It has been a precedent for 37 years, and I think the country is generally comfortable with it.

But...What would the Court do today, if our case had not been decided as it was in 1969? I just do not know a good answer to that question.

I feel quite sure that repressive forces are still active in society, just as they were in 1965. The idea that our freedom requires constant vigilance, seems right to me.

How did the Hazelwood case of 1988 effect the results of your 1969 case? How did it decrease student civil liberties in most states?
The decision in the Hazelwood case said that schools may exercize editorial control of school publications, including a student-edited school paper.

However, some states have passed legislation that prevents much of the Hazelwood decision from being applied in their states.

My opinion is that Hazelwood narrowed the application of the "Tinker test" (free speech unless the speaker causes substantial disruption), excluding First Amendment protection from certain school-sponsored activities. But student speech that is independent, that does not imply school school sponsorship of the ideas expressed, is still protected.

The metaphor I use is that the "plateau" of the Tinker decision is still just as high, but that sides, as it were, have been erroded somewhat.

How do you want to be remembered?
I would like to be remembered by my children as having been a good father.

There are several things that I wish people would remember. I would like people to remember that the good things we have received from the past must be passed forward to the future generations. I would like people to remember to think for themselves, and to try to figure out what is going on in the world, even if it seems like a hopeless project to do so. I really believe that the efforts we make to try to understand the world, and the efforts to try to change it for the better, are valuable, even if things progress more slowly than we had hoped. Keeping alive the dream of a better world is worth the effort. To the extent that I have worked towards these goals, people can remember that about me if they like.