Still Tinker-ing with free speech: 50 years after a landmark SCOTUS decision, the case’s namesake continues her First Amendment work

(One of my happiest geeky moments: A photo with Mary Beth Tinker at a journalism convention.)

Journalism students tend only to get jazzed up about court cases when they manage to accurately recall them for a media law final. Hosty v. Carter, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, NY Times v. Sullivan and more tend to blur after time and become a jumble of, “Wait, wasn’t that one about…” recall after the fact. (One of the few favorites I can recall is Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, a momentous case that dictated how the First and 14th amendments related to parody and public figures.)

One case that refuses to collect dust is Tinker v. Des Moines, thanks in large part to plaintiff Mary Beth Tinker’s lifelong crusade to keep the importance of free speech front and center. Tinker and her siblings, along with a family friend, wore black armbands to school in 1965 in protest of the Vietnam War. They were subsequently punished, leading to a lawsuit that made its way to the Supreme Court. The Court heard the case in 1968 and issued its decision early the next year, ruling 7-2 in favor of the plaintiff. The majority noted that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Today, Mary Beth Tinker continues to use her experiences as a learning device for subsequent generations of U.S. students. Over the past few years, she hit the road with the “Tinker Tour” project, which aimed to bring real-life civics lessons to students, faculty and administrators throughout the country. The project, which started in 2013 with some help from the Student Press Law Center, continues to promote the ideas of free speech, free press and more at the student level.

For more information on Mary Beth Tinker, the landmark Supreme Court Case and the Tinker Tour itself, you can head over to the Tour’s official website.



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