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Teens' armband protest led to landmark free speech case

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 8, 2013 - Two photos that grace the yearbook for the 1970 graduating class of University City High School show competing groups.

One depicts members of student government, while the other features a group of students who want to overthrow student government. Mary Beth Tinker is in the second photo.

Tinker’s name – and her activism for causes she believes in -- became a lot more familiar when it was attached to a landmark case that grew out of the decision by her and her brother in 1965 to wear armbands to school protesting the Vietnam War.

When they were suspended by school officials in Des Moines, Iowa, where they lived at the time, they filed suit, beginning a legal battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, with a stop at the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis along the way.

The family moved to St. Louis in 1968, and Tinker entered U City High, where she graduated in 1970.

On Feb. 24, 1969, the court ruled 7-2 in her favor, in an opinion that included the now-famous conclusion that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

As Justice Abe Fortas wrote for the majority:

“Freedom of expression would not truly exist if the right could be exercised only in an area that a benevolent government has provided as a safe haven for crackpots.”

But that view did not satisfy dissenters Hugo Black and John Marshall Harlan, who saw nothing but chaos ahead. Black expressed his fear this way:

“Turned loose with lawsuits for damages and injunctions against their teachers as they are here, it is nothing but wishful thinking to imagine that young, immature students will not soon believe it is their right to control the schools, rather than the right of the states that collect the taxes to hire the teachers for the benefit of the pupils.”

Subsequent court decisions, including one involving Hazelwood schools and student newspapers, have reined in the freedom that the Tinker case seemed to grant. Tinker herself went on to become a pediatric nurse, but she remains committed to the kind of free expression that she, her brother and others sought that day in Iowa nearly 50 years ago.

She will be the keynote speaker at this year’s high school journalism conference at Webster University on Monday, and she will also be part of a panel discussion at the university Monday night, where attendees will receive their own armbands celebrating free expression.

She spoke with the Beacon earlier this week; excerpts from her interview have been edited – but not censored -- for clarity and space.

Did you have any idea when you decided to wear an armband to protest the Vietnam War that nearly 50 years later you would be a symbol for free expression?

Tinker: We had absolutely no idea it was going to be so significant. That’s what I tell kids: History is mostly made by small actions, and it may be the kind of history you want.

It wasn’t the stereotype of the time. We were very clear we were nonviolent. It was about freedom of speech, which was what we were taught at school, to use your words. But the adults didn’t always follow that. They talked about it, but in society it wasn’t always a nonviolent society.

I didn’t know it was such a landmark case for a long time. I was so shy. I was just going about living my life. After a while the media just kept focusing on me, this girl from the Midwest. I just gave in and decided that for whatever reason, I was going to become this symbol of young people having a voice in democracy.

It took me a while to figure out what to do with it. I kept hearing more and more about it, and there was a program at American University that one of the constitutional law professors started. He invited me to come in to address the students there, then the Close-Up Foundation made a short film about cases involving young people.

It’s become a hobby over the years. I do it more and more. I think kids really need to be encouraged to speak up and be engaged and involved in the issues in their lives.

How often do you talk to groups like this? Do you find that students are interested in exercising and pushing for their free speech rights?

Tinker: I like kids. That’s why I’m a pediatric nurse. I enjoy helping kids learn about the constitution.

I think this is something that young people naturally take to, democracy first of all. It’s important to them that they should have a say about their lives, and they naturally feel they are often cut out of that process. That happens too much.

They’re interested in hearing about not only my story but the stories of other young people. I try to tell them stories about what is happening all over the country and all over the world.

I was just reading about a girl in Alabama who was speaking up about brominated vegetable oil in Gatorade, which is a flame retardant. She started a petition and got a lot of signatures, and Gatorade decided to take the oil out that was being added to the Gatorade.

Kids in Florida decided to wear rainbows to school. The principal decided to ban them, but they won their fight.

There are just so many students who are speaking up about different things – some with more success than others.

How has the effort to protect free speech changed over the years?

Tinker: I think kids are using social media to promote the things they care about. They’re just like adults – they are interested in their social lives and their personal lives.

There was a boy named Jack that I met outside the Department of Education at a big protest, where people came from 30 cities to talk to Arne Duncan about their public schools being closed. He’s a ninth grader from Pennsylvania, and he made a YouTube video about saving his school, which has been an elementary school in his area for more than 100 years. He was telling everyone about it. It’s great that he cares about something like that.

How can school officials tell when peaceful activism crosses the line into disruption? Is it like pornography, that you can’t define it but you can recognize it when you see it?

Tinker: That’s the gray area. There’s no book you can go to where you can look up these things. There are people who are trying to find their way through these questions. That’s why I want to educate kids on the interpretation of the law.

You can see it all the time. There are some cases in Pennsylvania that had to do with Facebook. They were decided in different ways in district court, but eventually an appellate court decided in their favor. It can change with the times, too.

How has your career extended the activism that began when you were in school?

Tinker: I’m a nurse, working a regular shift in a pediatric unit with adolescent trauma patients, which is another reason I’m doing this kind of thing more and more. I think it’s really better for children’s health, both their mental health and their physical health.

A lot of kids oppose school closings. They are worried that if their local school is closed, they may have to go across town where they may not be wanted, and it could be dangerous. An expert in trauma at our hospital has agreed to be a witness about why these school closings could be a danger to kids. I think that happened in Chicago, where a kid was killed.

So it’s physical health and mental health, and we also need young people to be interested in democracy. They’re creative. They have a lot of energy and are interested in technology.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.