Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) and Snyder v. Phelps (2011)

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Under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, there are various freedoms guaranteed to individuals, which are viewed as being at the heart of what make up America. Of the five freedoms guaranteed there, Freedom of speech is perhaps the most important as it forms the premise for other four rights. Over the years, the Supreme Court has decided several landmark cases relating to this fundamental freedom and the instances where restrictions may and may not be applied.

Background of the Cases

In Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), which is an example of one of these seminal cases, three public school students, namely Christopher Eckhardt and John Tinker who, at the time, were both in high school and Mary Beth Tinker, who was at that time an eighth-grade junior high student, wore black armbands to school to express their opposition to the then ongoing Vietnam war. The school district upon learning of the students plan to protest via wearing the armbands, had hurriedly crafted a policy forbidding it (Shackelford 374). In line with the new policy, the students were asked to remove the armbands and then suspended after they refused to comply. Then they decided to sue the school district for violating their rights under the First Amendment.

In Snyder v. Phelps (2011), another landmark free speech case, the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) organized a picket at the funeral of Matthew Snyder, an American Marine who had died on duty in Iraq. At the picket, the WBC protesters displayed various placards with offensive messages that included things like “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “Semper fi fags”, and later published articles on its website declaring Matthew’s death a wrathful punishment from God for American tolerance to homosexuality among other sins (Shackelford 146). Albert, Matthew’s father, then sued Fred Phelps, his two daughters, and the WBC for various torts ranging including defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Similarities and Differences between the Cases

Perhaps the most obvious similarity between the Tinker and Snyder cases is that they both entailed a question of the free speech right as posited under the First Amendment. In Tinker case, the question was whether the prohibition imposed on the students from wearing armbands and the subsequent punishment via a suspension constituted a violation of the students’ free speech rights. Similarly, in Snyder case, the question was whether the court, by awarding damages against the defendants, was limiting their right to free speech based solely on the content of their message.

 Another similarity between the two cases was that they both entailed a selective application of the supposed justifiable limit of the free speech. For Tinker case, the school district and the respective institutions responsible for suspending the students all allowed the wearing and public display of items such as Iron crosses and political buttons (Shackelford 379). For these institutions to purport to ban the black armbands was the epitome of hypocrisy and demonstrated an inconsistency in the application of their rules that was discriminatory. Similarly, in Snyder case, the imposition of a limitation on the defendants’ rights to picket at funerals on the basis of the content of the messages on their placards was discriminatory because the same standard did not apply to messages in support of the Snyder family (Barrett-Fox 151). Hence, in both instances, it was imperative that the ruling did not appear to be prejudicial towards one group while favoring another since free speech protection is applied to everyone.

However, the two cases also differed. The Tinker one entailed a discussion of what could be considered free speech within a certain controlled environment (within an educational institution in this case). Conversely, the Snyder event involved a debate over free speech in a public area and the circumstances under which this could be regulated. Due to this critical difference, the determinations of the two cases diverged significantly. In the event of Tinker, the court opined that free speech protection should be applied even within schools as they were not ‘enclaves of totalitarianism’ where the administration possessed ‘absolute authority’ while also establishing a two-pronged standard dictating the instances during which a school was entitled to regulate free speech with these being any instance where the free speech would materially and substantially disrupt the school activities and where the speech was in collision with other students’ rights (Shackelford 383). For Snyder case, the principle applied by the court was that the speech being a public matter was deserving protection under the First Amendment irrespective of its hurtful nature to a particular individual (Regan 315). Punishing a speaker for the expression of an opinion merely because it was mentally painful to another would only serve to stifle public debate, which was against the ideals expressed in the First Amendment.

Types of Free Speech Involved

The Tinker case primarily entailed an issue of symbolic speech, which refers to nonverbal activities in which a political message is conveyed. In this case, the plaintiffs sought to convey the message of their opposition to the war through the wearing of black armbands. On the other hand, the Snyder event was primarily rising a question of pure speech because the consideration was on the nature of the words that were used and whether the injurious nature of the choice of words made them ‘fighting’ which was not covered by First Amendment protections.

Works Cited

Barrett-Fox, Rebecca. "Civility, Civil Liberties, and Religious Nationalism." God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right, UP of Kansas, 2016, pp. 138-167.

Regan, Richard J. "The Roberts Court (2005–)." A Constitutional History of the U.S. Supreme Court, Catholic University of America Press, 2015, pp. 273-333.

Shackelford, Kelly. "Mary Beth and John Tinker and Tinker v. Des Moines: Opening the schoolhouse gates to first amendment freedom." Journal of Supreme Court History, vol. 39, no. 3, 2014, pp. 372-385.

June 07, 2022
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