Mary Beth Tinker was a shy kid.
“I got good grades, I was kind of a teacher’s pet, my dad was a preacher – I mean, come on,” she told KNKX Public Radio. “So I wasn’t one to be a rabble rouser at all. But I felt very strongly.”
She was 13 years old in 1965, when images of the Vietnam War were pervasive on TV news. The U.S. had committed more than 184,000 troops and seen nearly 2,000 combat deaths.
So Tinker, her brother John, and a family friend named Chris Eckhardt wore black armbands to school in protest of the war. School administration in Des Moines, Iowa, heard about the plans and banned the protest. They wore the armbands anyway, and were suspended.
And then they sued.
The case worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969, which decided 7-2 in Tinker’s favor. Since then, the case has been cited thousands of times and was the basis for what’s known as the “Tinker Test,” which says students can express themselves freely in schools, as long as that expression doesn’t disrupt the educational process.
Writing for the majority, Justice Abe Fortas said students and teachers don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
Today, Mary Beth Tinker tours the country advocating for free speech in schools. She recently appeared in Tacoma, talking to a summer institute for high school and middle school civics teachers.
“I think the status of speech rights for students is good in some ways, but there’s a sliding scale,” she said. “If you’re low income, if you’re a student of color, if you’re Native American, then you don’t have as many rights in your schools.”
Tinker cited low-income schools that often don’t have journalism programs, or schools that sometimes have strict uniform codes. She says it’s important that students know they can make their voices heard – and that they have adults who will back them up.
“Yes, youth are the future, but they’re also the present, and they can have a voice right here today,” she said. “And when they do, it’s better for everyone.”
Listen above to her conversation with KNKX All Things Considered host Ed Ronco.