In 1965, a group of siblings and a family friend in Des Moines, Iowa, decided to wear black armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam War. When the principals of their schools became aware of the plan, they developed a policy prohibiting such protests – a policy that the students chose to ignore. As a result, Mary Beth Tinker, her brother, and a high school friend were suspended from school. This is the backdrop of one of the most famous student free-speech cases in American history: Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Comm. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 509 (1969). Indeed, most school administrators can quote a prominent observation of the Supreme Court as it relates to speech: “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
In light of the current national movement of planned student protests around the country, this case provides important considerations on the authority of school officials to censor student expression. While the High Court held that expression in certain cases may be suppressed, it cautioned school officials that they must be able to show that their action “was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompanies an unpopular viewpoint.”
As student protests on a national level gain steam and momentum, school officials must plan a response that is viewpoint neutral and measured in light of potential school rule infractions. Even when a student’s viewpoint is not unpopular, districts should consider imposing appropriate discipline if only to neutralize future viewpoint discrimination claims from students who wish to engage in speech or leave campus for a less popular reason. When student speech is coupled with other student expression such as walking out of class in protest of gun violence in schools, school officials maintain their obligation to adhere to student attendance laws, as any time away from school is time away from instruction and may result in truancy or disciplinary consequences. However, districts must remain aware that they can no longer suspend students for attendance violations. Disciplinary consequences are best reserved for the act of cutting class or causing substantial disruption to the educational environment.