From other editors: An Iowa case’s win for rights

The Tinker decision established a historic and important line that school officials must observe in respecting the rights of their students

Iowa is not known as a hotbed for landmark court decisions, but it has had some significant cases involving our freedoms.

“The Case of Ralph,” was decided in 1839 by the Territorial Supreme Court, which ruled that a slave living in Iowa could retain his freedom, even though he was in financial arrears with his former owner. “No man in this territory can be reduced to slavery,” the justices stated. (The U.S. Supreme Court, whose majority hailed from slave states, saw it otherwise in 1857 with its Dred Scott decision. That position was subsequently nullified by ratification of the 14th Amendment.)

In 2009, some 170 years after “Ralph,” the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously upheld a District Court ruling and in Varnum v. Brien ruled that gay couples had the freedom to marry. That decision made Iowa only the third state to legalize gay marriage, a freedom the U.S. Supreme Court made the law of the land six years later.

Fifty years ago this week, a landmark federal ruling in an Iowa case protected the First Amendment freedoms of young people: Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.

In the 1960s, with the U.S. mired in the Vietnam War, expressions and demonstrations of anti-war sentiment were on the rise. In 1968, five students in Des Moines — four were members of the Tinker family — chose to wear black armbands to school in an expression of anti-war protest. That’s it. But even that was too much for administrators, who, as they had warned, suspended the three oldest students. (The two grade-schoolers were not punished.)

After the Eighth Circuit Court deadlocked on the matter, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, ruled that First Amendment protections extend to students in public schools and that school authorities can only censor speech that would significantly interfere with the discipline necessary for the school to function.

“Quietly and passively” wearing armbands, not impinging the rights of others, does not undermine discipline, the majority said, so the Des Moines school district’s policy was ruled unconstitutional.

Writing for the majority, Justice Abe Fortas stated that “students in school as well as out of school are ‘persons’ under our Constitution, possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect.”

Then as now, the Tinker ruling does not mean that anything goes. Public school administrators still retain wide latitude in setting and enforcing policy to maintain school order and discipline. As they should. But Tinker established a historic and important line that school officials must observe in respecting the rights of their students.

Everyone who cherishes the five freedoms contained in the First Amendment — even (and especially) when we happen to disagree with what is being expressed — should take a moment to reflect upon and celebrate what the Tinker decision of 50 years ago this week, a case from Iowa, means to our young citizens today.

-Dubuque Telegraph Herald

Feb. 27

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