Mary Beth Tinker discusses the importance of student rights.
“Religion and Expression. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” – First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America
Recently I had the opportunity to watch Mary Beth Tinker lecture. As a 13 year old girl, she never thought her name would be attached to a landmark Supreme Court Case of Tinker v. Des Moines.
Born into a pastor’s family in Des Moines, Iowa in 1952, a decade when the tensions between blacks and whites continued to heighten, her family believed that religious ideals should be put into action. They tirelessly fought on behalf of the blacks living in their town. This selfless deed only reciprocated in the banishment of the entire family from town. From an early age, Tinker had been taught to remain sincere to her principles.
By 1965, 170,000 U.S. soldiers were stationed in Vietnam. Live footage flooded TV’s and publications of the first “televised war.” Appalled by deaths of many, Tinker and her friends decided to wear black arm bands to mourn for the lives lost on both sides. On December 14, 1965 the principals of Warren Harding Junior High adopted a policy that made wearing armbands impermissible. Two days later, Mary Beth Tinker and her brother John, anxiously walked to school. A few hours after school started, she was sent to the principal’s office.
Her stomach churned as she stepped into the Vice Principal’s office.
He said, “Mary Beth, I’m surprised! What is a good student like you doing wearing that armband? Take it off.”
Tinker, scared of what would happen, instantaneously removed it.
He continued, “Well Mary Beth, since you wore it, you are suspended.”
The next day, her brother John and all of her friends were suspended. With the help from an ACLU lawyer, Tinker took her case to court. Her case worked its way up the federal court system. After a series of fierce school board meetings, encountering death threats, watching people yell “Communists!” and throw red paint at her house, the verdict had come out.
On February 24, 1969, Mary Beth Tinker had won.
But the victory was really for all students. The Court ruled that the First Amendment applied to public schools, and school officials could not censor student speech unless it disrupted the educational process. Chief Justice Abe Fortas’ famous ruling, “Neither students or teachers “shed their Constitutional rights…at the schoolhouse gate,” establishes the rights of students in public schools for the first time.
As a student journalist for The Chronicle, I realize the intrinsic value of this case. In a day and age where creativity flows among youth, students often feel discouraged to express that. It is cases like Tinker’s that spur others to step out of their bubble and take a stand for what they believe in instead of being suppressed.
Thank you Mary Beth Tinker. Thank you.