by Don Corrigan
Professor, Webster University
AEJMC Scholastic Journalism Division member

Mary Beth Tinker - flyer from First Amendment pep rallyMary Beth Tinker was 13 years old in 1965 when she and her brother wore black armbands to school in Des Moines to protest the Vietnam War. Tinker and several other students were thrown out of school –- resulting in a First Amendment lawsuit on  behalf of the students’ rights to free speech.

That lawsuit led to the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District Supreme Court ruling that provided freedom of expression for high school students.

Mary Beth Tinker spoke about her case to high school journalism students at convention last month hosted at Wesbser University by the Sponsors of School Publications of Greater St. Louis (SSP). Almost 650 students cheered Tinker at the convention as she quizzed them about the five freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment.

Tinker also commented on the impact of the Hazelwood decision in 1988, when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the logic of its Tinker decision and handed administrators the power to censor student free expression.

In remembering her court experience, Tinker said she was summoned to the Supreme Court in November, 1968, where she listened to serious men in black robes discuss her case.

“Several months later, in February, we heard we won the case,”  Tinker recalled. “It was nerve-wracking when the press came to interview me, almost as nerve-wracking as chemistry class. I was shy, so it was all pretty strange.”

Tinker_armbands_wThe high court voted 7-2 that wearing armbands at school to protest the war was constitutionally-protected speech.

Justice Abe Fortas wrote: “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse gate.”

Mitch Eden, journalism adviser at Kirkwood High School, and his SSP colleagues arranged for Tinker memento armbands to be given to students during the morning rally and given to members of the community who attended an evening session for the greater St. Louis community.

After the St. Louis event, Tinker said it was a sort of dry run for an upcoming “Tinker Tour.” If all goes as planned, the Tinker Tour will be a First Amendment Bus Tour of schools all over the country. The tour will officially start in Philadelphia in September on Constitution Day.

 “It is like a pep rally for the First Amendment,” she said of the tour. “What could be better than that? The time has never been better to stand up for free speech and for high school journalism programs that are getting squeezed in tough budget times for school districts

“Students actually use their freedoms that they learn about in civics,” Tinker said. “I tell young people they have rights –- and if you don’t use them, you lose them.”