I write in response to the Sept. 15 Associated Press article “High schoolers joining chorus of anthem protesters” (Page A5) that presented the difficulties that school administrators experience when students make visible social protests during the national anthem.
The author mentioned that in 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in favor of public school students in Iowa who had worn black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War.
As more students are now making their own decisions about the anthem, and as administrators struggle to respond, I’d like to offer information about the 1969 Iowa decision, Tinker v. Des Moines, and its importance to students.
I interviewed John Tinker, a key plaintiff in this case, in 1990 while researching my book about young people in U.S. history. In 1965, John Tinker, then 15, and his 13-year-old sister, Mary Beth, were part of an Iowa family of war protesters.
John recalled, “I opposed our involvement in Vietnam because it was a war. I didn’t believe that there were good wars and bad wars. I was brought up to value human life and to see war as a defeat.”
His view didn’t win him many friends at school as Vietnam was heating up and other students’ family members were going off to Southeast Asia.
After attending an anti-war protest in Washington, D.C., John, Mary Beth, their neighbor Chris Eckhardt and about a dozen friends decided to wear black armbands to school as an anti-war protest. On the appointed day John put on a dark suit coat and a tie to show respect for his school, stuffed the armband in his coat pocket and walked out the door.
After homeroom he went into the restroom to pin the armband on, but his hands were trembling too hard. A friend came in and helped him. Nobody noticed the armband until lunch, when students called him “Commie.”
An hour later he was summoned to the principal, who told him to remove the armband. John wouldn’t budge and was sent home. Mary Beth and Chris were also expelled. They stayed out four days, until Christmas break.
During the break, media coverage fueled anger against the Tinkers. One radio talk show host offered to lend a gun to anyone who would shoot John and Mary Beth’s dad.
John recalled, “At night I would lie in my bed wondering, ‘If someone throws a grenade through the window, what will I do? Dive into the closet? Put the mattress over my head?’ ”
Over the holiday break, the Iowa chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union proposed suing the Des Moines school system on the grounds that public school students had been denied their right to free speech under the Constitution’s First Amendment. The protesters returned to school – still wearing black but without the armbands, so they could keep studying.
In April 1966, the protesters’ case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, was heard in federal court. John, Mary Beth and Chris testified.
The Tinkers’ lawyers argued that a hastily passed rule prohibiting armbands – passed only when school officials caught wind of the protest – cut off the students’ right to free speech. The school countered that the rule was necessary to maintain discipline.
The judge sided with the school system. The protesters pushed their case through the courts and argued it before the U.S. Supreme Court in the fall of 1968.
In the spring of 1969, it was announced that the Tinker side had won by a 7-2 majority.
Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, writing for the majority, said, “School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students in school as well as out of school are persons under our Constitution. In our system, students may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate. They may not be confined to the expression of those sentiments that are officially approved. … Children do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door.”
The decision still affects students. The Iowa armband case made it clear that school officials can discipline students who disrupt class, or graffiti the halls, or bully classmates, but they can’t stifle political expression.
A student decision to stick one’s neck out to support an unpopular but deeply held principle, especially in the early stages of a public disagreement, is difficult and scary.
I write this only so that young people struggling now with our anthem, and the adults who work with them, will know that they are not alone in history.