John Tinker Describes Federal, District, and Supreme Court Battle

John Tinker Describes Federal, District, and Supreme Court Battle


We did enter a suit against the school system
in the federal court. We had the trial in the summer of 1966. I testified first. Dan Johnston was our young, but very capable
lawyer. We testified. We told the story of what happened. Dan argued to the court that we should have
the right to express our opinions. It was completely non disruptive. It was just a silent protest wearing the black
armband. Judge Stephenson ruled that, he was retired
military. He had a rank, I forget what. He ruled that it was a speech issue, but that
he felt that the school authorities had the right to make a rule to prohibit it. We lost that first trial, the first case,
the first hearing in the federal court. We appealed it to the circuit court in St.
Louis. The three-judge panel that heard the first
presentation asked that the whole court hear it. They thought it was an important enough case. They were short. They were missing a judge. They only had eight judges instead of nine
and those eight split four for us and four against us. So that left standing the first Court’s decision We appealed it to the Supreme Court. There had been another case at the circuit
court in Atlanta. The students there had warned freedom buttons,
and the court had sided with the students that they had the right. There was a conflict then between the two
circuit courts, and that made it more likely than that the Supreme Court would accept the
case to resolve the issue. They did hear the case, and they found in
our favor seven to two. Abe Fortas wrote, what I think of as a very
good, strong, majority opinion, standing up for the First Amendment. Pointing out how important the First Amendment
is to our democracy; and beyond that, it’s the first time that the court had acknowledged
that public school students are persons under the law with respect to the Constitution and
the First Amendment. That was a very strong opinion. He also noted that in our society we depend
on the public schools to educate students for citizenship, and that we couldn’t treat
the First Amendment as though it’s just window dressing something that we say we believe
but that we don’t really believe. He pointed that out, and I think it’s an excellent
opinion. I would encourage anyone that’s interested
to read Abe Fortas majority opinion in our case.

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