Ohio Journalist

Student Press Advocate, Supreme Court Precedent

by Kate Hiller | Photos by Eli Hiller

(December 1, 2015) — For the last year, Mary Beth Tinker has been visiting schools across the U.S. as part of a “Tinker Tour,” sponsored by the Student Press Law Center. This past September, she spent a couple of days at Ohio University.

Currently a nurse in the Washington, D.C., area, Tinker is best known for a 1969 Supreme Court decision.

On Dec. 16, 1965, when she was 13 years old, Tinker was one of several students who wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. A couple of days before the students wore their armbands to school, principals in the Des Moines Independent Community School District had announced that wearing armbands would result in suspension.

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

Before taking the issue to court, 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 failed, ACLU lawyers urged them to take the case 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 U.S. Supreme Court, there was a historic change of heart.

In a 7-2 ruling decided on Feb. 24, 1969, the Supreme Court ruled 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.”

Hate mail she and her family received at the time included letters stating that students should save protesting for weekends, as well as criticism of her upbringing and a hand-drawn hammer and sickle with the word “HATE” written across it in block letters. 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 widely referenced in both high school and college media law lectures, Tinker shared with students that at the time of the decision, she didn’t realize how influential it would be. Now, however, young people are having more impact than ever, according to Tinker.

“I think young people are the next great leap for democracy, [because] young people are standing up and speaking up for themselves all over the country and all over the world.”

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