Teaching Supreme Court Cases: Tinker v. Des Moines and Freedom of Speech

This blog and the accompanying resource are part of a Shaped monthly series providing teachers for Grades 6–12 with downloadable U.S. history classroom resources and discussion topics.

Tinker v. Des Moines Lesson Plan

In 1965, amid the backdrop of the Vietnam War, students in Des Moines, Iowa, wore black armbands to school to protest the ongoing conflict and mourn the soldiers who had died in battle. Among them was Mary Beth Tinker, a 13-year-old junior high school student who was asked by the school board to remove her armband for violating a district ban on such items. Tinker and a few other students were subsequently suspended, and they sued the Des Moines Independent Community School District, claiming the district was violating their First Amendment rights.

The debate that ensued prompted a four-year court battle that culminated with a Supreme Court decision in 1969, in which it was decided in a 7-2 vote that students don't "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." Essentially, the court determined that school administrators could not censor student speech unless it was disruptive to students' education. 

Half a century later, debates continue, especially as the concept of free speech in school has become more complicated due to advances in digital technology. According to the National Constitution Center, "Significant questions remain as to whether and to what degree a school can punish students for speech expressed off-campus or online."

Have your students learn about the origin of Tinker v. Des Moines as they explore its continued impact today with the resource below.

Classroom resource and student questions available for download.

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Learn more about HMH Social Studies, including the Judicial Inquiries program for middle and high school students to study 25 landmark Supreme Court cases that continue to impact their lives.

Read more blogs about teaching Supreme Court cases, including:

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