Photo by Maria Bryk

Mary Beth Tinker at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. in front of the permanent exhibit commemorating the Tinker v. Des Moines case. She is pictured with her brother John holding the black armbands they wore in silent protest of the Vietnam War when she was a 13-year-old junior high school student. She talks with journalism students today in Portland at an event hosted by Northwest Scholastic Press.

Mary Beth Tinker talks about free speech, civics education with students

Hosted by NWSP and the UO School of Journalism at the Turnbull Center in Portland, Tinker Tour USA is a special project of the Student Press Law Center.

March 14, 2014

By Rob Melton
Mary Beth Tinker, the plaintiff in the landmark ACLU case Tinker v. Des Moines that established free expression rights for students and teachers in schools, discussed her case with  more than 120 students and their teachers this morning in Portland at the UO Portland Center. Mary Beth discussed her case, the rights of students today, and shared highlights from her Tinker Tour across the United States. A reception and lunch followed.

She started the morning telling her story about events leading up to wearing a black armband in junior high school in 1963 to protest the Vietnam War. She also talked about the five freedoms of the first amendment, introducing each by giving a way a T-shirt with the name of the freedom on it. Then she turned the program over to SPLC attorney Mike Hiestand of Washington state to discuss press law, Oregon’s free speech protections, and an overview of decisions since Tinker and their impact on free speech.

Before Friday’s presentation to NWSP delegates, she spent the morning with Roosevelt High School students in Portland, talked with students from the Portland Student Union, then spoke about student rights yesterday evening at an event sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented her in Tinker v. Des Moines.

Mary Beth Tinker was an ordinary girl who wanted to make a difference.

At 13 years old in 1965, she had no idea that the simple act of wearing a black armband to school in protest of the Vietnam War would spark a national debate about students’ rights.  But it did, and the Supreme Court defended those rights with its landmark ruling that neither teachers nor students “shed their Constitutional rights … at the schoolhouse gate.” (Tinker v Des Moines, 1969).

Since then, her story has been shared in history books and over 6,000 court cases involving students’ rights to free expression in public schools.

Now, Mary Beth  is touring the country with First Amendment attorney Mike Hiestand to share her story, along with  the powerful voices of youth everywhere.

The U.S. Supreme Court case of Tinker v. Des Moines
Mary Beth was a 13-year-old junior high school student in December 1965 when she and a group of students decided to wear black armbands to school to protest the war in Vietnam. The school board got wind of the protest and passed a preemptive ban. When Mary Beth arrived at school on December 16, she was asked to remove the armband. When she refused, she was sent home.

Four other students were suspended, including her brother John Tinker and Chris Eckhardt. The students were told they could not return to school until they agreed to remove their armbands. The students returned to school after the Christmas break without armbands, but in protest wore black clothing for the remainder of the school year.

Represented by the ACLU, the students and their families embarked on a four-year court battle that culminated in the landmark Supreme Court decision: Tinker v. Des Moines. On February 24, 1969 the Court ruled 7-2 that students and teachers do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

You can read the transcript and hear the oral arguments at The Oyez Project at Chicago-Kent is a multimedia archive devoted to the Supreme Court of the United States and its work. It aims to be a complete and authoritative source for all audio recorded in the Court since the installation of a recording system in October 1955. The Project also provides authoritative information on all justices and offers a virtual reality Tourof portions of the Supreme Court building, including the chambers of some of the justices.

The Court ruled that the First Amendment applied to public schools, and school officials could not censor student speech unless it disrupted the educational process. Because wearing a black armband was not disruptive, the Court held that the First Amendment protected the right of students to wear one.  The “Tinker test” is still used by courts today to determine whether a school’s disciplinary actions violate students’ rights.

Teaching materials are available on the Tinker Tour USA website:

She will be traveling and speaking throughout Oregon through Wednesday, March 9. Check the tour schedule for other events open to the public.

Thursday, March 13
AM: Roosevelt High School, Portland, Ore.
5 pm:  Tonkon Torp LLP Reception *Portland, Ore.

Friday, March 14
Northwest Scholastic Press Association, Turnbull Center, University of Oregon/Portland, Portland, Ore.
PM: Dinner to honor Liz Perris, Portland, Ore.

Monday, March 17
AM: Gordon Russell Middle School, Gresham, Ore.
Noon: Lewis and Clark Law School, Portland, Ore.
PM: LaSalle Catholic College Prep, Portland, Ore.

Tuesday, March 18
First Amendment Reception, Corvallis, Ore.

Wednesday, March 19
University of Oregon, School of Journalism, Allen Hall [A reception will follow the talk] Eugene, Ore.

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