The community is invited to a reception  celebrating a half century since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Tinker decision, protecting the free speech rights of students.

The event is Sunday, February 24 beginning at 2:30 PM at Harding Middle School.

This week the district observes the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Tinker v Des Moines Independent Schools. Implicit in any judicial precedent is the fact that it arose out of conflict. No, it’s not the Tinkers versus the school district now, but half a century ago the whole community – indeed, the whole country – was in turmoil about the Vietnam War.

We dug up the minutes from the school board meetings at the center of the original incident to reset the stage of what’s evolved from a firestorm to an occasion for celebration over the course of fifty years.

The December 21, 1965 school board meeting was held in the afternoon, less than a week after the suspensions of John and Mary Beth Tinker and Christopher Eckhardt from North High, Harding Junior High and Roosevelt High schools, respectively. The suspensions were for wearing black armbands to school in defiance of a rule that was hastily adopted earlier that month by district school principals when word got around that a student protest was in the works.

According to the official minutes, there were “approximately 180 people in the audience besides reporters.” That’s a big crowd for a school board meeting, standing room only.

Besides each of the board members and the district superintendent at the time, Dr. Dwight Davis, the Tinkers and their parents spoke at the meeting. So did leaders of the Roosevelt student government, on behalf of faculty members who were alleged to have encouraged harassment of students expressing antiwar sentiments.

The board ultimately voted that day to table its consideration of the administrative policy banning armbands until its next regular meeting on January 3, 1966.

The minutes of that meeting, held at the more customary time of 7:30 PM, open by noting that an article ran in the Des Moines Register about a “secret” meeting the board held to consult with the district’s attorney about the armband policy. Nothing is said about the attendance, but it’s clear from the number of people who requested permission to speak that community interest in the proceedings was still running high, and that the issue was divisive.

Some Board members seemed to appreciate the legal consequences of the school district’s action. One such member was Arthur Davis, a leading Iowa attorney who went on to serve as mayor of Des Moines 30 years later. He shared his position noted in the minutes that “the controversy was a clear issue on the individual’s constitutional rights of free expression.”

A motion was made that night to overturn the policy against armbands. It lost by a vote of 5-2 that gave rise to legal action.

The Tinkers et al. would also lose at each level of the courts, until they ultimately prevailed by a final score of 7-2 in their last at-bat before the Supreme Court of the United States.

The 2018 book The Schoolhouse Gate: Public Education, the Supreme Court and the Battle for the American Mind, by University of Chicago law professor Justin Driver, includes a chapter devoted to the Tinker precedent and puts the events surrounding the case in the national context of those times.

The SCOTUS ruling was by a resounding vote that didn’t necessarily reflect overall public opinion at the time.

Driver’s book recalls that the Chicago Tribune editorialized against the ruling and cites the Des Moines Register, Boston Globe, Washington Post and New York Times as examples of newspapers that hailed it.

The book also points out that a Harris Poll taken one month after the Tinker decision found 52% opposed to granting students the right to protest and only 38% in favor.

Remember, too, that the antiwar stew that was simmering in December of 1965 when the Tinkers and Eckhardt were suspended for wearing their black armbands to school was at full boil in November of 1968 when the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case and three months later when its decision was announced.

Emotions ran high for several years, an aspect of the controversy that must be read between the lines of bare-boned public documents like school board meeting minutes. For those old enough to remember, that’s not hard to do. For those not, just take the country’s current polarization and project it onto a different topic at a different time.

The Tinkers will be tuckered out by the end of this week’s itinerary when a public reception is held at Harding Middle School on February 24th, the exact date when the Supreme Court ruling was announced 50 years ago. By then they will have visited nine DMPS schools and participated in assorted public events including book signings and a live streamed town hall hosted by the state historical society. Then it’s on to Drake, Iowa and Iowa State universities next week. Ironically, there’s a school board meeting scheduled for tonight, but the Tinkers are not on the agenda.

Refreshments will be served at the reception on Sunday. None were at those board meetings in 1965/66.

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