Plaintiff who pioneered free speech in schools urges students to exercise their right



Mary Beth Tinker, one of the plaintiffs in the landmark case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, spoke to students at the law school on Wednesday, September 16. Ms. Tinker, whose presentation was sponsored by the ACLU chapter at the law school, discussed student activism and her role in Tinker, the case that established the constitutional free speech rights of students in public schools.

Ms. Tinker was only 13 years old when she decided to participate in a protest against the Vietnam War that would spark the Supreme Court case that set the precedent for student speech even today. In 1965, a group of students in Ms. Tinker’s school district decided to wear black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. When school administrators learned of the protest plans, they announced that any student who wore a black armband would be suspended. Ms. Tinker told the Harvard audience that the administration believed the protest would be disruptive, especially because a former student had recently been killed in Vietnam. Defying the administration’s ban on the armbands, Ms. Tinker, her brother and another student wore the armbands to school and were all suspended.

During her presentation, Ms. Tinker described the influence of the civil rights movement and her parents’ political activism on her own decision to protest the war. Ms. Tinker explained that her mother and father, a pastor, participated in civil rights demonstrations in the south that caused her father to lose his ministry more than once in Iowa. The stories that her parents told Ms. Tinker about the violence they witnessed during their participation in civil rights protests and the struggles of African Americans to achieve equal treatment under the law inspired Ms. Tinker’s beliefs in social justice and political protest. While she acknowledged her parents’ influence on her decision to protest the Vietnam War, Ms. Tinker was adamant that the decision to wear a black armband to school was hers alone and was not the result of parental pressure.

In addition, Ms. Tinker noted that as a young teenager, she was not very interested in or involved with the case as it proceeded to the Supreme Court. However, she feel strongly today about the precedent set by the case in favor of student speech that does not disrupt the educational mission of schools. Ms. Tinker argues that because political issues such as school funding, health care, the environment, the Iraq War, and many others have direct effects on the lives of young people, they should be able to express their political opinions in school, which is the main place in which they interact with their peers.

Although Ms. Tinker now works as a nurse, she is still deeply involved in student activism and works to educate students about their First Amendment rights. Ms. Tinker discussed her travels across the country and the many high school students she has met who are activists on a variety of topics, including the anti-war movement and LGBT rights.

Because of her own experiences as a young student, Ms. Tinker continues to advocate for the rights of all public school students to express their political and social beliefs. However, she believes that a general lack of knowledge among the population about constitutional rights threatens the ability of all citizens to effectively protest and advocate for their own rights. For example, she cited statistics that revealed that very few people are able to name the five rights granted by the First Amendment. As a result, Ms. Tinker emphasizes the need to educate students about the First Amendment, which she believes will then “trickle up,” as students educate their parents.

During the question and answer session after her presentation, Ms. Tinker faced pressure from some in the audience who argued that the Tinker decision undermined the authority of teachers in the public schools and put pressure on children to take up political causes when they are too young to do so. Ms. Tinker acknowledged the desirability of a childhood untouched by political struggle, but replied that children are already politicized and have a right to speak out about the political issues that directly affect their lives. In addition, she argued that the Tinker decision inherently protects against a breakdown in authority in public schools, as the majority opinion still allows schools to limit free speech when it will cause a disruption.

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