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In December 1965, at a meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, adults and students discussed how they could publicize their objections to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The students decided that they would wear black armbands to school to show their sorrow for those on both sides who had died in the war and their support for a proposed truce. When the principals of their schools became aware of the students’ plan to wear the armbands, they adopted a policy that any student joining the protest would be asked to remove the armband and that any student who refused to do so would be suspended until he or she returned to school without the armband. The students were aware of this newly adopted policy.

On December 16, Mary Beth Tinker, a 13-year-old junior high student, and Christopher Eckhardt, a student at Roosevelt High School, wore two-inch-wide black armbands to their schools. On December 17, Mary Beth Tinker’s 15-year-old brother, John Tinker, a student at North High School, and several other high school students did the same. The armbands caused some comments and warnings, and some students poked fun at the demonstrating students. One teacher indicated that his lesson was “wrecked” because of the demonstration and that the armbands diverted students’ minds from their regular lessons. However, no disturbances on school premises occurred. The demonstrating students merely went to their classes wearing the black armbands. Mary Beth and five high school students, including John and Christopher, were sent home and told that they could come back to school if they removed the armbands.

The students’ parents filed a complaint in a U.S. District Court and asked for an injunction to restrain school officials from disciplining the students. The District Court dismissed the complaint. The court reasoned that the action taken by school officials was a reasonable response to prevent possible disturbance of the public school environment. The parents appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. This court was equally divided, thus allowing the District Court’s decision to stand. The parents then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.