The Court ruled 7 to 2. Justice Fortas delivered the majority opinion of the Court.
Five justices agreed with the majority opinion. Two justices
concurred, meaning that they agreed with the Court's decision that the
school policy was unconstitutional, but they wrote separately to explain
their reasoning. Two justices dissented. Justice Fortas delivered the
majority opinion of the Court.
. . . First Amendment rights, applied in light of the special
characteristics of the school environment, are available to teachers and
students. It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed
their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the
schoolhouse gate. . . .
. . . The 14th Amendment, as now applied to the States,
protects the citizen against the State itself and all of its creatures —
Boards of Education not excepted. These have, of course, important,
delicate, and highly discretionary functions, but none that they may not
perform within the limits of the Bill of Rights. That they are
educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection
of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle
the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important
principles of our government as mere platitudes. . . .
. . . On the other hand, the Court has repeatedly emphasized the need
for affirming the comprehensive authority of the States and of school
officials, consistent with fundamental constitutional safeguards, to
prescribe and control conduct in the schools. Our problem involves
direct, primary First Amendment rights akin to "pure speech."
. . . In order for the State in the person of school officials to
justify prohibition of a particular expression of opinion, it must be
able to show that its action was caused by something more than a mere
desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany
an unpopular viewpoint. Certainly where there is no finding and no
showing that engaging in the forbidden conduct would "materially and
substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline
in the operation of the school," the prohibition cannot be sustained . .
. . . the record fails to yield evidence that the school authorities
had reason to anticipate that the wearing of the armbands would
substantially interfere with the work of the school or impinge upon the
rights of other students . . . [and] the school officials banned and
sought to punish petitioners for a silent, passive expression of
opinion, unaccompanied by any disorder or disturbance on the part of
petitioners. . . .
It is also relevant that the school authorities did not purport to
prohibit the wearing of all symbols of political or controversial
significance . . . Instead, a particular symbol — black armbands worn to
exhibit opposition to this Nation's involvement in Vietnam — was
singled out for prohibition. Clearly, the prohibition of expression of
one particular opinion, at least without evidence that it is necessary
to avoid material and substantial interference with schoolwork or
discipline, is not constitutionally permissible. In our system,
state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. 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 the absence of a specific showing of constitutionally
valid reasons to regulate their speech, students are entitled to freedom
of expression of their views. . . .
Questions to Consider
In the majority opinion, the Court recognized the need to balance
the specific rights in conflict in this case. What rights are in
According to the decision, what must a school prove in order to justify a rule prohibiting its students' rights to free speech?
Students in the Des Moines schools were permitted to wear other
symbols of political statements such as presidential campaign buttons.
Why was this significant to the Court?
In light of this decision, what are some situations when the Supreme
Court of the United States might allow the school district to restrict
students' free speech?