Landmark Supreme Court Cases Tinker v. Des Moines (1969)

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1 Landmark Supreme Court Cases Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) The 1969 landmark case of Tinker v. Des Moines affirmed the First Amendment rights of students in school. The Court held that a school district violated students free speech rights when it singled out a form of symbolic speech black armbands worn in protest of the Vietnam War for prohibition, without proving the armbands would cause substantial disruption in class. The December morning air was chilly as students John and Mary Beth Tinker were getting ready for school. As they got dressed, they tied black armbands around their sleeves. It was 1965, and John and Mary Beth were opposed to American involvement in the Vietnam War. They had decided to wear the armbands to school as a symbolic protest. The school district, having learned of their plan to wear the armbands, had adopted a new policy to suspend students who came to school wearing them. John and Mary Beth knew about the policy but they kept their armbands on as they walked into their classrooms in their Des Moines, Iowa public schools. It was not long before school officials asked John and Mary Beth to remove their armbands, but they both refused and were suspended. The school district maintained that it had banned armbands because of their potential to distract students and disrupt class. However, other forms of potentially controversial speech had been permitted in school, including campaign buttons. The Court had to consider two questions: were the armbands a form of symbolic speech protected by the First Amendment? And if so, did the school district have the power to restrict that speech in the interest of maintaining order in the school? In a 7-2 decision, the Court found that the armbands were basically pure speech and that the school s action was unconstitutional. In a famous phrase, Justice Fortas wrote, It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.... The Court found that the school had not demonstrated that the armbands caused a material and substantial interference with schoolwork or discipline and, rather, had acted merely to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint. The Court noted that the school district had not banned all political symbols, but had instead singled out the armbands for prohibition. In other words, the limiting of speech was not content-neutral a test the Supreme Court uses when deciding some First Amendment cases. The Tinker case remains a landmark in upholding the rights of students in schools to express their views in a peaceful and orderly way.

2 Questions 1. Why were John and Mary Beth Tinker suspended? 2. Why did the Supreme Court find their suspension unconstitutional? 3. The First Amendment says Congress shall make no law7abridging the freedom of speech. Do you think that armbands worn in protest are the same as speech? Why or why not? 4. In his dissent, Justice Black wrote, the [First Amendment] rights of free speech and assembly do not mean that everyone with opinions or beliefs to express may address a group at any public place and at any time. What did he mean? Do you agree?

3 Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) Summary School is back in session, and many students across the country have begun work in schools their parents selected for them using vouchers. Does the First Amendment prohibit the government from giving parents public money to pay for tuition at private, religious schools? The Supreme Court ruled on the voucher issue in the 2002 case of Zelman v. Simmons- Harris. Activity In the landmark case of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), the Supreme Court considered Ohio s Pilot Project Scholarship Program. This program gives tuition money (known as vouchers) to parents in the Cleveland City School District to allow them to send their children to public or private schools of their choice. The money, which is provided by taxpayers, could therefore go to religious as well as non-religious schools. In the 2000 school year, 96 percent of those using vouchers chose religious schools. A group of Ohio taxpayers objected to the program on the grounds that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion0 In a 5-4 opinion, the Court held that the program does not violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The Court reasoned that religious institutions receive public funds only through the choices of private citizens. Therefore, it is the individual people who receive the money for their children s education. Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote, The Ohio program is entirely neutral with respect to religion0it permits such individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious. The program is therefore a program of true private choice.

4 Comprehension and Critical Thinking Questions 1. Why did the Supreme Court rule that the Cleveland s voucher program is constitutional? 2. Do you agree with the Supreme Court s decision? Why or why not? 3. In his dissent, Justice Stevens wrote, Whenever we remove a brick from the wall that was designed to separate religion and government, we increase the risk of religious strife and weaken the foundation of our democracy. Do you agree? Why or why not?

5 Texas v. Johnson (1989) In 1984, the Republican Party convened in Dallas, Texas for their national convention. President Ronald Regan, seeking a second term in office, was to be officially delegated as the GOP candidate for President. Scores of individuals organized a political protest in Dallas that voiced opposition to Reagan administration policies and those of some Dallas-based corporations among the protesters was a man by the name of Gregory Lee Johnson. As the demonstrators marched through the streets, chanting their message, a fellow protestor handed Johnson an American flag that had been taken from a flag pole at one of their protest locations. Upon reaching the Dallas City Hall, Johnson doused the flag with kerosene and set it ablaze. Johnson and his fellow demonstrators circled the burning flag and shouted America, the red, white, and blue, we spit on you. No one was hurt or threatened with injury by the act, but many who witnessed it were deeply offended. Johnson was arrested, charged, and convicted of violating a Texas law that made it a crime to desecrate a venerable object. Texas was not the only state to have anti-flag burning laws on the books, 47 other states also criminalized flag desecration. For his crime, Johnson received a sentence of one year in prison and was ordered to pay a $2,000 fine. Johnson appealed his conviction and his case eventually went to the Supreme Court. Johnson argued that the Texas flag desecration statute violated the First Amendment, which says Congress shall make no law 9 abridging the freedom of speech 9 or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. The state of Texas argued that it had an interest in preserving the flag as a symbol of national unity. The Court had to consider: Are there certain symbols that are so widely cherished and understood to convey certain meanings that the government can regulate their use? The Court agreed with Johnson (5-4) and struck down the Texas statute. Burning a U.S. flag in protest was expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment. The First Amendment literally forbids the abridgment only of speech, but we have long recognized that its protection does not end at the spoken or written word9. If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.9 Though Texas v. Johnson has been upheld in subsequent Supreme Court cases, flag desecration itself remains unpopular in America. The House of Representatives has, on six different occasions, voted on a Constitutional Amendment known as the Flag Desecration Amendment, which states: The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States. Each time this Amendment has been introduced, it has passed the House by the required two-thirds majority. The Amendment never passed the Senate with the 67 votes needed, but it also has never received less than 63 votes in support.

6 Discussion Questions 1. Why was Gregory Johnson arrested? 2. What were the arguments on each side? 3. Do you agree with the Court s ruling that the First Amendment protects expressive conduct? Why or why not? 4. In his dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Rhenquist argued that Johnson s right to express his views had not been abridged. It was Johnson s use of this particular symbol, and not the idea that he sought to convey by it or by his many other expressions, for which he was punished.9surely one of the high purposes of a democratic society is to legislate against conduct that is regarded as evil and profoundly offensive to the majority of people whether it be murder, embezzlement, pollution, or flag burning. How would you respond to this argument? 5. Consider this: Before Johnson, 48 states had anti-flag desecration laws. Each time Congress has voted on the Flag Desecration Amendment, the proposal has passed by wide margins in the House and just short of the required two-thirds majority in the Senate. a) Do you think it is plausible that such an Amendment could become part of the Constitution? b) How would this impact the Supreme Court? c) Would such an Amendment alter the integrity of the First Amendment? How or Why not?

7 Schenck v. Pro Choice Network of Western NY (1996) This case about the free speech and assembly rights of citizens who wished to protest abortion, involved two types of buffer zone restrictions. The Supreme Court ruled that fixed buffer zones around abortion clinics were constitutional, while Floating buffer zones around individuals entering the clinics were not. In the early 1990s, a group of New York state doctors and family planning groups filed suit against several pro life groups, accusing the pro life groups of illegal activities outside abortion clinics. According to the case records, protestors staged numerous large scale blockades in which protesters marched, stood, knelt, sat, or lay in clinic parking lot driveways and doorways, blocking or hindering cars from entering the lots, and patients and clinic employees from entering the clinics. Another strategy used by the abortion clinic protestors to employ what they called side walk counselors to speak one on one with women entering the clinic and try to change their minds about having an abortion. The record showed that the discussions sometimes turned into pushing, shoving, and other unlawful conduct. A District Court issued a ruling preventing the pro life groups from coming within 15 feet of abortion clinics, as well as from coming within 15 feet of persons entering the clinics. The pro life groups argued these restrictions violated their First Amendment rights. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court had to decide the constitutional questions: Were the fifteen foot buffer zone around abortion clinics and/or the floating buffer zones around people entering the clinics unconstitutional restrictions on the free speech and assembly rights of the pro life protestors? The Court upheld the fixed buffer zones around clinics but struck down the floating buffer zones. The fixed buffers, the Court held, were a reasonable way of maintaining public safety. Further, the Court also noted that the protestors had a record of illegal activities including blocking doorways, harassment and spitting in clinic users faces activities not protected by the First Amendment. The fixed buffer zones did not prevent protestors from speaking, but did help prevent the unlawful conduct. On the other hand, the Court struck down the floating buffer zones around people entering the clinic. The Court reasoned, This is a broad prohibition, both because of the type of speech restricted and the nature of the location. Leaf letting and commenting on matters of public concern are classic forms of speech that lie at the heart of the First Amendment, and speech in public areas is at its most protected on public sidewalks, a prototypical example of a traditional public forum.

8 Discussion Questions: 1. Why did a group of doctors and pro choice groups file suit against several pro life groups in Schenck v. Pro Choice Network of Western NY? 2. What two types of buffers were at issue in the case? a) b) 3. How did the Supreme Court rule on the buffer zones? 4. Do you agree with the Court s ruling? Why or why not? 5. At least one dissenting Justice questioned whether individuals have a right to be left alone, or a right to be free from unwelcome speech. a) Do you believe there is such a right? b) How might that right apply to this case?

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