One of the most influential advocates of free speech, Mary Beth Tinker came to LIU Post on Monday, Sept. 23! Tinker and Mike Hiestand, a First Amendment attorney with the Student Press Law Center, came to Post to discuss her landmark case, Tinker V. Des Moines School District, and to remind students how to use the First Amendment, and to let them know of their rights while in school.
Tinker’s speech took the audience back in time. Students listened as she recalled her life changing moment. In 1965, Tinker and her little sister watched pictures of the Vietnam War on the news. “We would see these images of huts on fire, children running from their huts. The body bags on the ground. Every night we would watch this, we were getting more and more upset.”
Tinker, her brother, and some of their friends decided to do something to express how sad they were about the war and the lives lost. Tinker and her friends agreed to wear black armbands with peace signs on them to school. Tinker was warned by school officials not to wear the armband. Although she described herself as very shy, and not the type to speak up, she attended school with the armband anyway. Tinker was asked to remove the armband and was suspended. Tinker’s case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. In 1969, in a 7-2 decision, the court ruled that students had a right to wear the armband. Justice Abe Fortas emphasized that faculty and students have First Amendment rights. “It can hardly be argued that students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” said Justice Fortas.
Students found Tinker’s story to be inspiring. “She knew before going to school that wearing that armband would get her in trouble, and she didn’t let that stop her because she was doing what was right and standing up for what she believes in. That’s really inspiring because not many people our age are passionate about [things], which is not good,” said Lauren Malesky, a sophomore Political Science major. Kristen Costa, a sophomore English Education major, agreed with Malesky stating, “I like that they didn’t want her to wear the armband and she did it anyway. She knew that there would be consequences.”
Tinker and Hiestand want students to know that being able to express yourself freely in schools is still an issue today. Just a few weeks ago, a 25-year-old college student was handing out copies of the United States Constitution on his campus in Modesto, California. An officer approached the student and told him he could only distribute in a “designated free-speech area” that must be reserved in advance. The student was forced to stop handing out copies of the Constitution, on Constitution Day (Sept. 17). According to Fox Nation, “one in six of America’s 400 largest and most prestigious colleges have ‘free speech zones,’ limiting where speech can take place.”
Recently, two middle school students in Pennsylvania, were suspended for wearing their “I (heart) Boobies” bracelets to promote breast cancer awareness. The case went to the federal appeals court, which ruled in favor of the students’ First Amendment right to wear the bracelets.
“It’s important to remember that Mary Beth’s case is written on paper, laws are written on paper, they’re not carved in stone, and they can change. We’re seeing a lot of that these days. That’s part of the reason we’re on tour. Just to remind students, you have the right, it’s time to use it,” said Hiestand. Social media is one of the most powerful ways to get a message out to the public. Hiestand spoke about the power that students have right in the palm of their hand. If you can’t express yourself at school, use social media. Students have the right to voice their concerns about an institution that they are consumers of. “It’s time in 2013 to use those rights, take advantage of these new speech tools that are available out there.”
Tinker said that she could never have imagined at 13-years old, that her case would have become so meaningful. “I grew up and I became a nurse, and I slowly started realizing how important this case was, and what an important landmark it was for students’ rights. One of my tip offs of how important it was is when I saw my case in my nursing textbook, when I was in nursing school,” said Tinker.
Tinker spoke about the importance of raising your voice. If someone is afraid to stand up to something alone, look for others who believe in the same cause as you. Tinker encourages students to use their voice to help the world grow and become a better place. “Rights are like your muscles, if you don’t use them, you could lose them. If you know your rights and use them, it keeps our democracy alive, and it keeps your ability to express yourself alive, and your creativity alive and your power alive too,” Tinker stated.
The Tinker Tour has just launched and will continue to visit schools around the country this fall. For more information about the Tinker Tour, visit www.tinkertourusa.org.