Legal Principle at Issue
Whether the wearing of armbands by public school students as a form of symbolic speech is protected by the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the students’ right to wear the armbands, overruling the Eighth Circuit.
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After becoming aware of a plan among some students to protest the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands during school hours, school officials in Des Moines, Iowa, specifically banned wearing armbands in their schools. Previously, students had been allowed to wear “buttons relating to national political campaigns, and some even wore the Iron Cross, traditionally a symbol of Nazism.” The students wore the armbands in violation of the new policy, were suspended, and subsequently sued.
Importance of Case
The Court established a speech-protective standard for students—that school officials cannot prohibit student expression unless they can reasonably forecast that the student speech will cause a substantial disruption of school activities or invades the rights of others.
The Court affirmed that symbolic speech enjoys First Amendment protection, that students possess constitutional rights in public schools, and that “an undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance” is not enough to limit expressive rights. The Court held “that the wearing of armbands is ‘symbolic speech’ which is ‘akin’ to ‘pure speech’” and that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Additionally, the Supreme Court held that the protest did not seriously disturb learning or order at the school and that the ban on armbands “did not purport to prohibit the wearing of all symbols of political or controversial significance” but instead singled out these students’ particular viewpoint.