US Flag T-Shirt Prohibition Has Some Wondering About Tinkering with Tinker


An appeals court has ruled that a California school can stop students from wearing American flag shirts on Cinco de Mayo.

The Supreme Court (Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District) says that if an action causes a material substantial disruption, then the school can suppress that speech.

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969) was a decision by the United States Supreme Court that defined the constitutional rights of students in U.S. public schools. The Tinker test is still used by courts today to determine whether a school’s disciplinary actions violate students’ First Amendment rights.

In 1965, Des Moines, Iowa residents John F. Tinker, age 15, younger sister Mary Beth Tinker, age 13, and their friend Christopher Eckhardt , age 16 years, decided to wear black armbands to their schools in protest of the Vietnam War and supporting the Christmas Truce called out by Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The principals of the Des Moines schools learned of the planned protest and met on December 14, 1965 to create a policy that stated that school any children wearing an armband would be asked to remove it immediately. Any students in violation would be suspended and allowed to return to school after agreeing to comply with the policy. Mary Beth Tinker and Christopher Eckhardt chose to violate this policy, and the next day John Tinker also violated the school policy. All three students were suspended from school until after January 1, 1966, when their protest had been scheduled to end.

The Supreme Court held that the First Amendment applied to school, and that in order for school officials to justify censoring speech, they “must be able to show that the school’s prohibitive response was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantries associated with an unpopular viewpoint,” allowing schools to only forbid conduct that would “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.”

The court ruled that the arm bands did not disrupt school, and that the students’ actions were protected symbolic speech.

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