The Struggle for Student Rights
Tinker v. Des Moines and the 1960s
John W. Johnson
Benjamin F. Shambaugh Award, Honorable Mention
The tension between free speech and social stability has been a central concern throughout American history. In the 1960s that concern reached a fever pitch with the anti-Vietnam War movement. When anti-war sentiment “invaded” American schools, official resolve to retain order in the classroom vied with the rights of students to speak freely. A key event in that face-off was the Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines.
“Overall, this is an excellent book. It offers a comprehensive history of one of the Supreme Court’s seminal First Amendment decisions, and it does so without boring the layman reader.”
—Law and Politics Book Review
“Will provide the general reader and those readers in the field of education with an interesting, articulately written account of the way a constitutional issue arose in the lives of real people and was pursued in the courts.”
—H-Net ReviewsSee all reviews...
“The Struggle for Student Rights is a splendid example of the case study method used to its best advantage. Johnson not only sheds light on the history of American constitutional law and the Supreme Court,but also brings new insight to the question of why a group of clean-cut Iowa teenagers would defy authority and boldly assert their constitutional rights to be heard.”
—Annals of Iowa
“This is a story well told with engaging information in every chapter.”
—Journal of American History
“With concrete detail, it successfully evokes the circumstances through which a few ordinary people, with no ambitions for fame, became involved in a landmark Supreme Court case.”
—American Historical Review
“Johnson’s sensitive and perceptive treatment of Tinker should make all of us aware that teaching students to be good citizens requires far more than drilling them on facts and dates; it requires, as the Supreme Court noted, that we teach democracy by example. This book ought to be required reading for anyone interested in the connection between democracy and education.”
—Melvin I. Urofsky, author of A March of Liberty: A Constitutional History of the United States
“Johnson tells a fascinating story embedded in a rich guide to federal courts at work. Give this book to everyone you know who is in high school or was recently there.”
—Linda K. Kerber, author of Toward an Intellectual History of Women
“An immensely readable legal history of a landmark Supreme Court ruling and a compelling and intensely personal story about the lives and beliefs of the central figures in the case. A major contribution.”
—Melvin Small, author of Covering Dissent: The Media and the Anti–Vietnam War Movement
“A careful and readable study of the first major Supreme Court decision to protect students’ freedom of expression from school boards’ strict local control.”
—Paul L. Murphy, author of World War I and the Origin of Civil Liberties in the United StatesSee fewer reviews...
In 1965, five public school students in Des Moines-including John Tinker, a Methodist minister’s son—protested the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands in defiance of school policy. Suspended on disciplinary grounds that were upheld in federal court, the students took their case to the Supreme Court, arguing that they had been denied their right of freedom of expression under the First Amendment. Ruling in their favor, the Court determined that armbands did not constitute a sufficient reason to abridge free speech—a decision which helped provide a legal foundation for subsequent anti-war protests.
John Johnson now offers a detailed account of Tinker that captures the personal struggle of the litigants and places this seminal constitutional controversy in the legal and historical context of the 1960s. In this highly readable book, he shows that the case is important for its divergent perspectives on the limits of free speech and explains how the majority and dissenting Court opinions mirrored contemporary attitudes toward the permissible limits of public protest.
As the most important student rights case ever to reach the Supreme Court, Tinker raises important issues regarding First Amendment freedoms and is a strong precedent for both the rights of public school students and legitimate civil disobedience. The Struggle for Student Rights contains previously unpublished information and insights on this well-known case and provides a fascinating legal window on a turbulent era. With federal and state courts now considering the limits of speech and symbolic expressions in our schools, it makes a significant contribution to understanding the principles that are at stake.