When Mary Beth Tinker was a middle school student in Iowa, she never dreamed that she would one day see her name attached to a Supreme Court decision in her college text book. But that’s exactly what happened.
When she was 13, Tinker and her siblings watched daily coverage of the Viet Nam war on television complete with footage of body bags of slain soldiers. Just before Christmas in 1965, the body count had reached 1,000, and Senator Robert Kennedy had negotiated a Christmas truce. Tinker, her brother and a handful of other students, decided to wear black arm bands to mourn the dead and support the Christmas truce.
Before they actually wore their bands to school, a student at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines wrote an article about their intention and the principals of the middle and high schools ruled against the arm bands. Tinker had a dilemma. She had always abided by the rules, but she felt strongly about wearing the arm band. She finally decided to stand up for what she believed was right, wore the arm band to school and was promptly suspended.
The ACLU took up Tinker’s case and a lawsuit was filed. It went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and on February 24, 1969, the court ruled 7-2 in her favor that students’ rights to free speech and free expression do not stop at the classroom door. By the time of the ruling, the Tinker family had moved to St. Louis and Mary Beth was a student at University City High School where she would graduate in 1970.
But the Tinker case was not the last word on the subject of students’ rights. In January, 1988, the Supreme Court decision Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier upheld the authority of Hazelwood East High School to remove articles about teen pregnancy and divorce from the student newspaper.
Tinker thinks the Hazelwood decision is a mistake and even wears a “Cure Hazelwood” bracelet that she got from the Student Press Law Center. She firmly believes that students should have a voice. Tinker is now a nurse working with teenagers and cares deeply about their outcomes. She says, “It has been shown that when students have a voice in their schools, their outcomes are better. There’s less fighting and more success… Success in school is one of the best things for their health, and as it turns out, when they have a say in their schools and their lives, they do better.”
When the Tinker decision was made, Mary Beth did not have full appreciation of the extent of the difference her one small action would make. Her message to students today is to remember that their small actions can make history.
Mary Beth Tinker was in St. Louis to speak at the Spring Conference of the Sponsors of School Publications of Greater St. Louis. She also spoke and lead a panel discussion on the topic “Does the First Amendment Stop at the Classroom Door?" which was co-sponsored by Sponsors of School Publications (SSP); Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), Gateway Journalism Review/St. Louis Journalism Review; Gateway Media Literacy Partners; St. Louis Media History Foundation and Mid-America Chapter of National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS). Both events were at Webster University.
Tinker and Don Corrigan, Professor of Journalism at Webster University and Editor and Co-Publisher of Times Newspapers were Don Marsh’s guest on “St. Louis on the Air.” They discussed Tinker’s story, her continuing interest in advocating for students’ rights, the ramifications of the Tinker and Hazelwood decisions and the state of student journalism.