by Linda Barrington
JEA Mentor Committee co-chair
JEA Wisconsin mentor
High school students met Mary Beth Tinker, one of the three people who filed the lawsuit resulting in the Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) Supreme Court decision, affirming students’ First Amendment right to express their opinions in school.
These student journalists hadn’t yet been born in 1965 when Tinker, her brother John and others protested the Vietnam War in school by wearing black armbands. The administration suspended them for doing so.
Flash forward 48 years to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and Tinker Tour USA stops for the Fall Scholastic Journalism Conference of the Kettle Moraine Press Association for an audience of nearly 1,000 high school students and their journalism advisers.
“Looking out over that amazing, energetic crowd of young journalists, I felt the power of youth voices who are keeping democracy alive,” Tinker said.
She and former Student Press Law Center attorney, Mike Hiestand, are touring the country, visiting schools and students to promote student free expression and First Amendment activism. The SPLC is sponsoring the Tinker Tour. At the KEMPA stop, former SPLC director Mark Goodman joined both of them at each of the sessions on Oct. 18.
“The KEMPA conference was wonderful!” Tinker said. She was impressed by “the good conversation I had with students when I first got there – about issues they raised from fracking to school dress codes – to conversations about social media and the role of journalism. And, there was the great feeling I got standing in front of that beautiful crowd for the keynote ‘First Amendment rally’ in the morning.”
JEA mentors Babs Erickson, Sandy Jacoby, Dave Wallner and I attended the event, as well as nearly a dozen of our mentees, former mentees and their students, all from Illinois and Wisconsin schools.
At her first session Tinker told her personal story, pointing out how she had not realized the importance of what she was doing that day when she wore the armband, but grew to recognize its importance over the years. She gave out bright-colored First Amendment T-shirts to several students, encouraging them to recognize how important is it for them to be active in exercising their First Amendment rights.
In the second session, students had a chance to ask questions and offer comments as Hiestand, Tinker and Goodman discussed key court decisions. Dr. Steve Brown moderated and moved microphones to students in the audience. Brown is a former professor specializing in Educational Law at Northeastern Illinois University and is currently a producer at WGTD radio where he co-hosts the Education Matters program. The Tinker Tour team all commented about how well informed KEMPA students were compared to teens at other Tour stops.
At the final afternoon roundtable session, Hiestand asked for volunteers to come forward to talk about challenges they faced under prior review. Tinker, Goodman, and Brown asked questions about how they handled their coverage and reporting and what effect prior review had on them. Appleton North High School editors Sam Allen and Abigail Plankey described their decisions and the care with which they planned what to cover in each issue. Their principal reviews each issue, cover to cover, before it goes to print. Other students were surprised to learn of such censorship in their school.
“I only wish that every student in every school could have a journalism program, and a chance to attend such a wonderful conference,” Tinker said.
The Tinker Tour will be arriving at the JEA/NSPA convention in Boston.