Lesson Plan: Landmark Supreme Court Case Tinker v Des Moines (1969)

Vietnam War Protests and Tinker v. Des Moines

In discussing the 1969 landmark Supreme Court Case Tinker v. Des Moines, Mary Beth Tinker, a petitioner in the case, spoke about the political climate at the time and protests that were occurring around the nation. A newsreel of Vietnam War protests is also shown.


After wearing black armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam War, three students -- two of them siblings -- were suspended by the Des Moines Independent Community School District for disrupting learning. The parents of the children sued the school for violating the children's rights to free speech. The landmark Supreme Court Case Tinker v. Des Moines determined it was a First Amendment violation for public schools to punish students for expressing themselves in certain circumstances. This lesson uses expert analysis, perspectives from the Tinkers, oral arguments and archival video to explore the case and the legacy of the ruling.


  • WARM-UP:

    Before beginning class, have the students make a list of rights that they think they have in school.


    Review the students' warm-up answers and address any misconceptions.

    As a class or individually, have the students view the following three videos and use the questions for each video to engage in class discussion to provide context for this case and its connection with the First Amendment.

    Use the accompanying questions in the Handout as a guide throughout the lesson. Students can access all video clips using this handout.

    HANDOUT: Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) (Google Doc)

  • VIDEO CLIP 1: Tinker v. Des Moines- Vietnam War Protests (3:55)

    • Explain the historical background for Tinker protests.

    • How did the events in Vietnam affect Mary Beth Tinker and her siblings?
  • VIDEO CLIP 2: Tinker v. Des Moines- The People Involved (4:41)

    • Describe the students who protested in this case.

    • Where did the idea for the black armbands come from? What was the significance of it?

    • Why did the school prohibit the wearing of the armbands?
  • VIDEO CLIP 3: Tinker v. Des Moines - The Constitutional Issues (1:47)

    • How does the First Amendment relate to this case?

    • What does incorporation mean and how does it relate to Tinker v. Des Moines?

    • Describe the rights of students in schools prior to Tinker v. Des Moines?

    View the two videos below to learn about the protest and suspension, and the path to the Supreme Court. Answer each question associated with the clips on the handout.

  • VIDEO CLIP 4: Tinker v. Des Moines- The Day of the Protest (4:59)

    • Describe Mary Beth Tinker's experience on the day of the protest.

    • Describe John Tinker's experience on the day of the protest.

    • What were the consequences of the protests?
  • VIDEO CLIP 5: Tinker v. Des Moines- The Path to the Supreme Court (3:51)

    • How did the American Civil Liberties Union help the Tinkers in this case?

    • Why was this a federal case?

    • Explain how the case got from the School Board to the Supreme Court.

    Using the handout, students will view the following videos below to learn about the arguments, decision and legacy of the case. Students can complete the chart on the arguments in the case and explain its impact on students. Students can also answer each accompanying question to guide their viewing.

    To adapt this lesson for classes with limited time, you can opt to only include video clips 9 and 11 in this section.

    HANDOUT: Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) (Google Doc)

  • VIDEO CLIP 6: Tinker v. Des Moines- Arguments for the Tinkers (4:40)

    • What was significant about the lawyer that the ACLU provided?

    • Explain the arguments that the lawyer for the Tinkers made.

    • How is the standard different in public and private schools?

    • How did Mr. Johnston limit his argument? Why was that important to winning the case?
  • VIDEO CLIP 7: Tinker v. Des Moines- Arguments for the Des Moines School Board (3:13)

    • What are the arguments that Allan Herrick, the attorney for the School Board, makes?

    • What are problems with his arguments?
  • VIDEO CLIP 8: Tinker v. Des Moines- The Decision in the Case (1:03)

    • How did Walter Cronkite characterize the Tinker decision?

    • What aspects of the Supreme Court's opinions (majority and dissenting) did Cronkite highlight in his report?

    • How did Mary Beth Tinker's understanding of the decision change over time?
  • VIDEO CLIP 9: Tinker v. Des Moines- The Majority Opinion (4:16)

    • Explain the arguments that Justice Fortas includes in the Majority Opinion.

    • What "qualifiers" are included in this opinion? How do they limit student rights?

    • How does this opinion empower students?

    • How can this ruling be used against students?
  • VIDEO CLIP 10: Tinker v. Des Moines- The Dissenting Opinion (2:03)

    • Describe the arguments that Justice Hugo Black made in his dissenting opinion.

    • How were Justice Black's warnings about student protests incorrect?

    • How did Justice Black's dissenting opinion impact later cases?
  • VIDEO CLIP 11: Tinker v. Des Moines- Impact on Student Rights (3:58)

    • What specific student actions did the Bethel case deal with?

    • What specific student actions did Guiles v. Marineau deal with?

    • In Morse v. Frederick, what actions did the student take?

    • What are the two exceptions to the Tinker standard?

    • What actions did the Hazelwood case limit?

    • What have subsequent court cases done to student First Amendment rights?

    Using the ruling in Tinker and the precedents set in cases like Bethel, Guiles and Morse, view the video clip below discuss the following prompt:

    VIDEO CLIP 12: School Walkouts and Students' Rights (1:41)

    • How should schools address student walkouts? Include pros and cons of your stance.

    Interpreting the Tinker standard- Make a list of examples of student expression in schools that would, in your opinion, be protected under the Tinker ruling. Make a list of examples of student expression that would NOT be protected under the Tinker ruling. Please use discretion when describing these examples.

    • Share these examples with a partner and explain why you interpreted each the way you did.

    Comparing Supreme Court Cases- Compare and contrast the Constitutional arguments that made in Tinker v. Des Moines to those made in the following Supreme Court Cases.


    Additional Writing Prompts-

    • How has the ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines affected your life as a student?
    • Did the Supreme Court set an appropriate standard for students' rights in schools? Support your answer with examples.
    • Why is the Tinker standard only applicable to public schools?

Additional Resources


  • 14th Amendment
  • 1st Amendment
  • Advocate
  • American Civil Liberties Union
  • Appeal
  • Bethel V. Fraser
  • Bong Hits 4 Jesus
  • Brief
  • Chief Justice Earl Warren
  • Circuit Court
  • Concurrence
  • Constitution
  • Dissenting Opinion
  • District Court
  • Draft Card
  • Enclave
  • Freedom Of Expression
  • Guiles V. Marineau
  • Hazelwood V. Kuhlmeier
  • Incorporation
  • Inflammatory
  • Justice Abe Fortas
  • Justice Hugo Black
  • Majority Opinion
  • Morse V. Frederick
  • Obscenity
  • Oral Argument
  • Petitioner
  • Prior Review
  • Private School
  • Procedural Rights
  • Public Schools
  • Pure Speech
  • Qualifier
  • Respondents
  • School Board
  • Sexual Innuendo
  • Substantial Disruption
  • Supreme Court
  • Symbolic Speech
  • Totalitarianism
  • Vietnam War
  • View Point Discrimination
  • Vulgarity
  • Walkout
  • West Virginia V. Barnette


Civil Rights & Civil LibertiesEducationSupreme Court CasesU.S. History


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