Before 1969, the Supreme Court had not given much thought or time to the speech of students in schools. Most cases involving student speech revolved around speech regarding those student's religious rights. Two cases in particular, Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940) and West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943) show early rumblings of the Court's focus on student speech in schools. In Minersville, a group of Jehovah's Witnesses brought a case against their school district for forcing them to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and salute the American Flag in school, which in a different case, Stromberg v. California, was termed "symbolic speech." Perhaps inspired by a wave of wartime nationalistic fervor, the Hughes Court decided that students could be compelled to salute the flag as a way to build national unity:
National unity is the basis of national security. To deny the legislature the right to select appropriate means for its attainment presents a totally different order of problem from that of the propriety of subordinating the possible ugliness of littered streets to the free expression opinion through handbills. (Minersville v. Gobitis, 1940)
After the decision was handed down, Jehovah's Witnesses were persecuted all over the country for being "traitors," and school districts began codifying rules enforcing the salutation of the flag (Peters 2000, 84).
After a change of Chief Justice from Hughes to Stone, and the appointment of two new members to the Court, the Supreme Court was eager and willing to reverse its decision. They got their chance in 1943 with West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. This case also involved Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Court subsequently overturned Minersville on a plurality of 6-3, citing the free speech clause of the First Amendment:
If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. (West Virginia Board of Ed. v. Barnette, 1943)
Barnette not only set a precedent for emphasizing speech when examining issues, but it also paved the way for decisions regarding and a consciousness of religious exemptions, such as in Sherbert v. Verner (1963) and Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972). Exceptions were also made in the opposite direction, for example outlawing religious speech: in Engel v. Vitale (1962), the Court ruled that schools couldn't compel students to say a prayer in class.
The next significant student speech case would also come at a time of war and unrest, the 1960s. With civilian anger for the Vietnam war swelling, four public school students chose to protest by wearing black armbands to their local school, despite a district policy preventing it. The students were suspended, and took the Des Moines, Iowa school district to court in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. At the Supreme Court, a notably liberal Warren Court decided 7-2 in favor of the students. Authoring justice Abe Fortas now famously wrote,
First Amendment rights, applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment, are available to teachers and students. It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate. (Tinker v. Des Moines, 1969)