In Burnside v. Byars, 363 F.2d 744 (5th Cir. 1966), a federal
appeals court protected students’ First Amendment rights on
school grounds. The decision served as a key precedent for
the landmark Supreme Court decision Tinker v. Des Moines
Independent Community School District (1969).
A controversy arose when students at the all-black
Booker T. Washington High School in Philadelphia,
Mississippi, began wearing “freedom buttons” provided by
the Council of Federated Organizations. Many of the buttons
proclaimed “One Man One Vote” and protested racial
discrimination in voting and other aspects of public life. The
high school principal banned the buttons, saying they had no
relevance to the students’ education and “would cause commotion.”
Three parents, including Mrs. Margaret Burnside,
objected and filed a lawsuit.
A federal district court entered an order preventing the
principal from punishing the students for wearing the buttons.
On appeal, the principal contended that the ban was a
reasonable regulation designed to ensure order in the school.
A three-judge panel of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
unanimously affirmed the district court’s decision and ruled
in favor of the students. The appeals court declared that
school officials “cannot infringe on their students’ right to
free and unrestricted expression as guaranteed to them under
the First Amendment to the Constitution, where the exercise
of such rights in the school buildings and schoolrooms do not
materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of
appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.”
A few years later, the U.S. Supreme Court cited Burnside
three times in its 1969 Tinker decision. The Court used
Burnside as its key precedent in establishing the “substantial
disruption” test for student expression: school officials may
not censor student expression unless they can reasonably
forecast that the expression would cause a substantial disruption
or material interference with school activities or invade
the rights of others.