Tinker Tour: Freedom of Speech in Schools

SPJ Exec Board members with Mary Beth Tinker after SPJ's evening program | © 2014 Eli Hiller
SPJ Exec Board members with Mary Beth Tinker after SPJ’s evening program | © 2014 Eli Hiller
Photo courtesy of Mary Beth Tinker
Photo courtesy of Mary Beth Tinker

For the last year, Mary Beth has been visiting schools across the United States as part of a “Tinker Tour” sponsored by the Student Press Law Center, and was able to spend a couple days at Ohio University at the end of September.

So who is this woman anyway?

Though she is currently a nurse in the Washington, D.C. area, Mary Beth is best known by thousands for something that started when she was 13 years old and led to a Supreme Court decision in 1969.

On December 16, 1965, Mary Beth was one of several students to wear a black armband to school in protest of deaths from the Vietnam War. A couple days before the students wore their armbands to school, principals in the Des Moines Independent Community School District announced that wearing these armbands would result in suspension.

Tinker, along with Christopher Eckhardt, another armband-wearing student, was suspended and sent home. Her brother John, who decided last minute not to wear his armband on the first day, wore his the next day and was also suspended.

“It would have been the end of the whole thing, had it not been for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU),” Tinker said, recounting her story for the JOUR 1010 class at Ohio University in late September.

Before taking the issue to court, the John, Mary Beth and Christopher, along with their parents, went to the school board to try to work out the conflict without legal action. However, when their efforts didn’t prevail, the ACLU insisted that the case be brought to the courts. Both the District Court and the Appellate Court sided with the Des Moines Independent Community School District, but when the case got to the Supreme Court, there was a change of heart.

In a 7-2 ruling decided on February 24, 1969, the Supreme Court said that “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.”

During several speeches on campus, including an evening event for SPJ that was open to the public, Mary Beth passed around some of the hate mail she and her family had received. From letters requesting that the students save protesting for Saturdays and Sundays, to criticizing her upbringing and a hand-drawn hammer and sickle with the word “HATE” written across it in block letters, she had several artifacts to share. Even the pink slip that Mary Beth’s math teacher gave her when she wore her black armband to school for the first time is saved by protective plastic.

Though the Tinker vs. Des Moines case is well-known and is referenced in both high school and college classes, at the time, Mary Beth didn’t realize how influential it would be.

“I’m seeing first hand all over the county the real ways everyday that students are using their rights,” she said about her experience touring and speaking across the United States. “I was glad that there was controversy (at the schools), that means that people are paying attention and speaking up about what’s going on in the world.”

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