50 Years of Tinker v. Des Moines

First Amendment, Minors

By: Kate Lechtenberg

As a proud librarian, Iowan, resident of Des Moines, mother of Des Moines Public School students, I’ve tracking the local events in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Tinker v. Des Moines Supreme court case.  The first time I learned about this case, I was taking an education course at the University of Iowa, and I was shocked to find that an Iowa school had had played such an important role in First Amendment case law and students’ rights.  

Mary Beth Tinker speaking at a podium
Mary Beth Tinker

The ACLU’s case profile on Tinker v. Des Moines recounts the highlights of the case in which sister and brothers Mary Beth Tinker and John Tinker, along with friend Christian Eckhardt wore black armbands in protest of the the Vietnam War. Beyond any details of the case, it’s it’s the iconic statement that student do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse door” that stuck in my mind then, and t’s that phrase that I repeat for my students and my own kids today.

The Des Moines community reflects

While today, many Iowans are proud to be associated with the landmark case that protected students’ rights, I can only imagine the tensions and conflicts between members of the school, city, and state communities.  Mary Beth Tinker’s “Tinker Tour” website includes a rich collection of primary sources, including images of the suspension notice she received, a threatening postcard her father received, and original news articles published while the issue was being debated in the community and the courts.

The emotional impact of Tinker’s primary documents is echoed in current recent blog post on the Des Moines Public Schools blog that describes the shift from “adversaries to allies,” beginning with a recount of the 1965 school board meetings and subsequent court cases that pitted the school against its students, with the school prevailing in every case up until the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of students’ First Amendment rights. Likewise, current DMPS superintendent Tom Ahart’s editorial about the influence of Tinker on the school district describes a school district that has learned from and now celebrates its 1969 SCOTUS loss.   

Tinker inspires today’s student activists

several students from Parkland, Florida outside in a protest, holding signs “Fear has no place in schools” and “Thoughts & prayers don’t save lives. Gun reform will.”
“Thoughts and Prayers Don’t Save Lives, student lie-in at the White House to protest gun laws”
Photographer Lorie Shaull

Today, as Mary Beth Tinker and John Tinker tour the state to celebrate their landmark legal win on behalf of students, they always make connections to today’s student activists and the issues students and citizens of all ages are moved to protest.  In recent interviews on Iowa Public Radio and C-SPAN, as well as in their Des Moines Register editorial, they connect the civil rights issues and religious commitments that informed their personal and family experiences to their belief in the importance of student protests and civil rights issues of today.

Last year, Mary Beth Tinker reflected on how Tinker v. Des Moines relates to the 2018 March for Our Lives, and recently a student from Parkland joined the Tinkers in a recent televised presentation and Q&A at the Iowa State Historical Society that was livestreamed to classrooms across the country.

The events celebrating the First Amendment rights of students that were recognized fifty years ago may have been located in Iowa and focused on the case’s origin story, but the advocacy work started by the Tinkers and continued by other student activists in the last fifty eras goes well beyond Iowa and well beyond the black armbands that started it all. DMPS superintendent Tom Ahart’s conclusion is fitting: “Relatively few of our students have the right to vote. But they all have a voice. One day they will acquire the former. At no time will we stifle the latter.”


Kate Lechtenberg is a doctoral candidate in Language, Literacy, and Culture in the University of Iowa’s College of Education. After working in public schools for fourteen years as a high school English teacher and school librarian, her doctoral research now focuses on text selection, multicultural literature, educational standards, and equity initiatives. Kate teaches a young adult literature course in the College of Education and a school librarian course on print and digital collection management in the School of Library and Information Science. She was also a member of the AASL Standards Implementation Task Force. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.

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