Several students in high school and junior high school planned to wear black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. The principals of the schools became aware of the plan and implemented a policy that any student wearing an armband would be asked to remove it, and refusal to remove the armband would result in suspension until the student returned to school without the armband. In spite of the policy, the students wore the armbands to school. They were all sent home and suspended.
The students filed a complaint in federal district court seeking nominal damages and an injunction to restrain the school district and officials from disciplining them. The district court dismissed the complaint, and an equally divided 8th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision.
Whether the schools’ policy banning the students from wearing armbands violated the students’ First Amendment rights to freedom of speech?
(J. Fortas) The schools’ policy infringed on the students’ First Amendment rights.
Under the First Amendment, school officials have no authority to prohibit student speech or expressive conduct that does not materially and substantially disrupt school activities or invade the rights of others.
Children retain their constitutional rights at school. At the same time, school officials have the authority to prescribe and control students’ conduct. However, the desire to avoid discomfort associated with an unpopular opinion is insufficient to overcome students’ right to free expression. Here, the students’ act of wearing the armbands was a type of symbolic act closely akin to pure speech. The conduct entailed a silent, passive expression of opinion. There was no evidence that the school officials had reason to believe that the act of wearing the armbands would substantially interfere with the work of the school or impinge on the rights of others. Likewise, there was no evidence that the students’ conduct actually did cause a substantial disruption.
In a concurrence, Justice Stewart stated his belief that children’s constitutional rights are not coextensive with those of adults.
Justice White also concurred, noting the distinction between communicating by words and communicating by acts or conduct that sufficiently impinge on some valid state interest.
In a dissent, Justice Black stated the majority’s approach improperly transferred from school officials to the Court the authority to control student conduct and enforce discipline.
In a separate dissent, Justice Harlan stated he would place the burden on students objecting to a school policy to show that the policy was motivated by other than legitimate school concerns.