Sample Psychology Essays on Civil Liberties & the Supreme Court

Civil Liberties & the Supreme Court

Selected Case

Tinker v. Des Moines (1969)

In December 1965, during the zenith of the protest against America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, Mary Tinker an eighth-grade student at Warren Harding Junior High School in Des Moines, Iowa, together with a number of her friends and brother John Tinker decided to participate in the protests. They opted to wear black armbands which signified that they were opposing the war. The school board, in a bid to counter the influence and spread of the opposition among the schools within the district of Des Moines, outlawed the wearing of any clothing to school that supported the opposition to the war (“Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District”, n.d.). The board held that any action contrary to their holding would be met by the suspension of the culprits from the schools as a disciplinary action.

Mary Tinker, his brother, and three other students wore black armbands to school in support of the protest against the Vietnam War. The Principal upon being informed of their actions suspended them for violating the district’s ban (“Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District”, n.d.). By the end of the week, other students, including two others from other schools within the district, had been suspended.

The parents of the suspended students through their attorney Craig Sawyer held a meeting with the district school board in abiding to overturn the suspension. The board was adamant in upholding the suspension of the students claiming that the decision to involve American soldiers in the Vietnam War was a government decision that they had to support. When Craig Sawyer stated that the suspensions violated the First Amendment. The board held the view that public schools were limited public spaces and therefore had fewer speech rights. The families decided to seek redress through court action.

Progression of The Case Through the Lower Courts

The case addressed the civil liberty issue of freedom of speech and expression and its various limitations more so in public schools. The ruling upheld the fact that student’s rights to expression and speech as provided by the First Amendment cannot be unilaterally limited without due process of the law.  The civil liberty of freedom of speech and expression is provided in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment holds that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances (“Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District”, n.d.).The civil liberty of freedom of speech is further guaranteed by Section 1 of the 14th amendment which states that “…nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law…” (Pritchett, 1977).

In the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, chief judge Roy Stephenson acknowledged the use of armbands by the students was a symbolic form of speech. He confirmed the board’s holding that public schools are limited public spaces. In his ruling, he upheld the school’s decision to suspend the students to terming the sanctity of the disciplined environment of the classroom. The Tinkers appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit; whose verdict was evenly divided. Therefore, the case was appealed to the U.S Supreme Court. The court held in its majority opinion that the First Amendment applied to public schools and student’s right to speech should not be censored. The majority opinion, written by Justice Abe Fortas, held that “Students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse gate” (“Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District”, n.d.). The ruling also ruled against the lower court’s assertion that public schools were limited public spaces. The ruling, however, accepted that there are limitations to student’s speech and actions more so in public schools. Justice Abe Fortas, who authored the majority opinion, maintained that the armband worn by the students to school was a form of symbolic speech protected by both the first amendment and the fourteenth amendment. The majority opinion maintained that the constitution did not circumscribe the freedom of speech only in principle but to ensure its observation in fact and action. That every civil liberty, freedom of speech included, cannot be violated or infringed on in any manner by any of its organs (“Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District”, n.d.). The majority opinion picked out on the school’s decision to limit student’s freedom of speech as unconstitutional.

Importance of the Ruling

The ruling was fundamental in various ways. It upheld the civil liberties of the students, such as the right to expression and speech. Besides, the ruling created limitations to the freedom of speech more so in a school setting and circumstances to be considered before their limitation. The ruling also led to the creation of the substantial disruption test that is used to determine when to infringe upon students’ First Amendments rights.

Powers Granted to Supreme Court by Constitution Allowing Them to Rule on Case

Article Three of the U.S. Constitution created the federal judiciary. Section 1 of the article provides that the judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court (Pritchett, 1977). Article Three Section 2 of the constitution establishes the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction, which involves appellate jurisdiction on almost every constitutional law case (Pritchett, 1977). The Supreme Court has the power of Judicial Review, which empowers it to declare a legislative or executive act inconsistent with the constitution. The Judicial Review powers vested in the Supreme Court gave the court jurisdiction to listen to and decide the case. The Supreme Court, therefore, has the final word over the violation or protection of a constitutionally guaranteed civil-right.

Civil liberties are the rights and freedoms that are enjoyed by each citizen. They are enshrined in the country’s constitution and are deemed fundamental and sacred. The U.S. Supreme Court plays an important role in safeguarding civil liberties and civil rights from any form of infringement. Through its powers of Judicial Review, the American Supreme Court has the jurisdiction to decide cases concerning civil liberties and interpret civil liberties and rights. In addition, the powers enable the court to strike down any legislative or executive acts that are inconsistent with the constitution and violate any of the civil liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The Tinker v. Des Moines is a landmark case that has protected the First Amendment rights of students in public schools.




Beth, L. (1955). The Case for Judicial Protection of Civil Liberties. The Journal of Politics, 17(1), 100-112. Retrieved from

Pritchett, C. H. (1977). The American constitution. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. (n.d.). Oyez. Retrieved from