393 U.S. 503 (1969), argued 12 Nov. 1968, decided 24 Feb. 1969 by vote of 7 to 2; Fortas for the Court, Stewart and White concurring, Black and Harlan in dissent. Some Des Moines, Iowa, high school and junior high school students protested the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands in school. School officials had adopted a policy banning the wearing of armbands two days before the students’ action. When the students wore the armbands to school they were sent home and suspended until they returned without them. The students claimed that their First Amendment rights were violated by the schools’ action.
The Court's opinion noted that school officials had comprehensive authority to set rules in the schools but that this had to be done consistent with the First Amendment rights of students and teachers, who did not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate” (p. 506). Wearing an armband as a silent form of expressing an opinion was, according to the Court, “akin to pure speech” and involved “primary First Amendment rights” (p. 508).
Two aspects of the Court's opinion are especially significant. First, the expression of the students who wore the armbands caused no disruption and did not, in the Court's opinion, intrude on the work of the school or the rights of other students. Of the eighteen thousand students in the school system, only a few wore the armbands and only five were suspended. A few students made hostile remarks to the students wearing the armbands, but no acts of violence or threats occurred on school premises. The school officials’ actions could not, said the Court, be based merely on an undifferentiated fear of a disturbance, for all unpopular views may create some unpleasantness and discomfort. Such is the price we pay for living in an open and often disputatious society.
Second, the Court stressed the fact that school officials had permitted other political symbols to be worn. For example, some students wore political campaign buttons, and others wore the Iron Cross, a symbol of Nazism. But only the black armbands protesting American involvement in Vietnam were singled out. Thus the regulation was directly related to the suppression of a specific view on a given subject, and the Court struck it down as not constitutionally permissible. As the Court put it, “state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism,” and “students may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate” (p. 511).
Justice Hugo Black, in a notable and bitter dissenting opinion, argued that local officials should be permitted to determine the extent to which freedom of expression should be allowed in their public schools. These officials, Black asserted, knew better than federal judges how to run the schools, and their judgment was also to be preferred to that of the students. Moreover, he disagreed with the majority's finding that there were no disruptions resulting from the students’ wearing the armbands. According to Black, there were comments and warnings to the students wearing the armbands, and one mathematics teacher had his lesson period “wrecked” as a result of a dispute with one of the petitioners regarding her armband.
Subjects: Law — Politics.