For this segment of law school orientation, constitutional interpretation is discussed. To outline this principle, Tinker v. Des Moines will be used.

Orientation: Constitutional Interpretation

The Constitution is the founding document of our country and does two things. First, it established a form of government which limited the power of the federal government and the states by giving each body different powers. This form of government is called federalism. Second, through amendments it protected the rights of citizens from governmental overreach. Understanding the amendments and how they have changed the structure of government can be difficult but illustrated through several Supreme Court cases. To illustrate this principle, we will brief Tinker v. Des Moines

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District




Des Moines school district

Legal Question

Did the school violate the students first amendment rights by restricting students from wearing the armband?


The Tinkers attended high school and junior high school in Des Moines Iowa. They gathered together to protest parts of the Vietnam war and to vocalize their desire for a truce. To do so, they set a date to wear armbands to school to symbolize this protest. The principle heard of the protest, banned armbands, and suspended the students until they complied with the school policy. The Tinkers filed a complaint, which was dismissed by the trial court, upheld (by split vote) at the circuit court, then brought before the Supreme Court.


This symbolic speech was protected because it is not disruptive to school activities. Reversed and remanded


The court first determines that this is a free speech issue at conflict with a governmental interest of maintaining school authority. Additionally, it is important that the court notes this is an issue where the speech at hand closely resembles “pure speech”, that is, it receives the highest protection of the court called strict scrutiny. Meaning, for the school policy to be considered constitutional, there would need to be a compelling governmental interest that is narrowly tailored.

The district argued that the compelling interest was to maintain a classroom environment free of disturbance. However, this fails because the use of the armbands was not disturbing the school and fear of a disturbance is not enough of a compelling governmental interest.

Instead, the court argues, the policy was used not to limit disturbance but instead was in direct response to the knowledge of the protest to take place. The school cannot limit the controversy because of a fear of controversial topics.

Why should we care?

One interesting thing I noticed from this case and from orientation is the combination of civil, common, and Constitutional interpretation. In Tinker, the case was tried because of a statute (civil law). However, the court was asked to determine the Constitutionality of that statute (Constitutional interpretation). To do so, the court used common law to strengthen and shape their arguments.

From Tinker specifically, we see the value the Supreme Court has on Constitutional issues. They are to be heavily guarded to protect the rights of citizens.


The content contained in this article may contain inaccuracies and is not intended to reflect the opinions, views, beliefs, or practices of any academic professor or publication. Instead, this content is a reflection on the author’s understanding of the law and legal practices.

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Categories: Orientation

Will Laursen

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