Today’s world of anger, mistrust and public friction is a lot like the era in which Mary Beth Tinker went from being a scared teenage girl to being the namesake of a landmark Supreme Court decision, the First Amendment icon said Friday.
“We live in mighty times,” she said. “These times are so much like the times were when I was growing up. It does make life a little more interesting.”
Tinker spoke at UW-Whitewater as part of the Kettle Moraine Press Association’s scholastic journalism conference, in which she told students about her free-speech activities and urged them to find something that matters to them.
“The press is so important to our democracy…,” she said. “You hold government accountable. You hold those in power accountable.”
In 1963, she first wore an arm band to school to protest racists who had been bombing black churches to keep segregation in place, she said. (“They’re back again,” she added.) However, it was her decision to take part in a larger protest against the Vietnam War in 1965 at the age of 13, that brought her to the forefront of the free-speech movement. The school suspended Tinker and several others, including her brother, John, for the actions.
“A lady called on the phone and threatened to kill me,” Tinker said. “She told me, ‘Kids don’t know anything about Vietnam. Guess what I found out? Adults didn’t know anything about Vietnam. They couldn’t find it on the map.”
The Tinkers and other sued the district and lost at every level of appeal except the one that mattered most: The U.S. Supreme Court. In its 1969 decision, the court ruled 7-2 in favor of Tinker, with Justice Abe Fortas famously noting that “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
At the time, Tinker said she wasn’t thinking about being a free-speech icon.
“We lost at the district level and we lost at the appeals level,” she said. I went on with my life. I went rollerskating and I went back to my classes… I had no idea how important that case was.”
Fifty years later, Tinker continues to preach the importance of student activities that serve the best the First Amendment has to offer. She told the audience of student journalists that they should find something that matters to them and speak out about it.
“The number one reason for censorship?” she asked rhetorically. “An article reflects poorly on the school… Without controversy we have no democracy, we have no education. We can deal with controversy in ways that are respectful.”
One of the biggest things that came out of the entire legal fight, Tinker said, was that the courts opened the door to more speech from traditionally suppressed sources.
“The court ruled sometimes students have something to teach our teachers,” she said. “It said, ‘Students are persons.'”