Posted on April 14th, 2013 No commentsby Don Corrigan
“She’s kind of like a rock star. I can’t believe I am in line to have an armband actually signed by Mary Beth Tinker,” said Tammy Merrett-Murry, the college newspaper adviser at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville (SIU-E).I was in line for Tinker’s signature as well.
After all, Mary Beth Tinker is a legend. Her armband, her photo, her case documents and “fan mail” are all in a glass case in Washington, D.C., at the incredible Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue.
In 1969 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Tinker in a triumph for student free expression. It all began when 13-year-old Tinker and her brother wore black armbands to school in Des Moines (Iowa), and they were thrown out of school.
After 25 years of teaching college students about Tinker, Hazelwood and other First Amendment cases in my media law classes, it should come as no surprise that I jumped at the chance to bring Tinker to St. Louis to speak to students and the community. The opportunity arose when my friend Mitch Eden, adviser to the Kirkwood High School Call, told me that his group, Sponsors of School Publications (SSP), wanted to bring Tinker to the regional convention of SSP at my university on March 11.
As things worked out, Tinker spoke to more than 600 high school students in a morning session of SSP and about 150 members of the St. Louis community at an evening event at my school, Webster University. In between, Tinker and I did a radio show on “St. Louis On The Air” on KWMU, the local NPR affiliate.Two weeks after these events, I had a lunch meeting with Tinker in Washington, D.C., where I was giving a paper related to First Amendment issues at the convention of the Popular Culture Association (PCA).
Tinker told me the St. Louis event was a sort of dry run for an upcoming “Tinker Tour.” If all goes as planned, the Tinker Tour will be a First Amendment Bus Tour of schools all over the country and it will officially start in Philadelphia in September on Constitution Day.
“St. Louis worked out well and it’s kind of a model of what we want to do,” Tinker told me in Washington.
“It’s like a pep rally for the First Amendment. What could be better than that? The time has never been better to stand up for free
speech and for high school journalism programs that are getting squeezed in tough budget times for school districts.“I think the enthusiasm of the students in St. Louis shows how central journalism and newspapers can be to high school curriculum,” added Tinker. “Students actually use their freedoms that they learn about in civics. I tell young people they have rights – and if you don’t use them, you lose them.”
At the First Amendment “pep rally” in the gymnasium at Webster University, Tinker had the students on their feet. She asked them to name the five freedoms included in the First Amendment, which they did.
This was in stark contrast to the knowledge the general populace has about the First Amendment, as indicated in Knight polls and similar polling in the U.S.Tinker’s own enthusiasm for the Bill of Rights moved people at the Webster University Winifred Moore Auditorium in the evening. She was accompanied by a knowledgeable panel that I put together, which included representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), the Mid-America Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS), and a local high school newspaper editor.
At both the evening session, and the morning session with the students, we gave out memorial Tinker armbands. The armbands recalled when she wore a protest armband in 1965 to oppose the Vietnam War and to signal support for a Christmas truce in Southeast Asia proposed by U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
Tinker and several other students were thrown out of school – resulting in a First Amendment lawsuit on behalf of the students’ rights to free speech.In 1969, the Supreme Court voted 7-2 that wearing armbands at school to protest the war was constitutionally-protected speech.
Justice Abe Fortas noted: “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse gate.”
Tinker said she is not sure whether the armbands will become a part of the “Tinker Tour” which will launch later this year.
She said the armbands at the St. Louis events were part of what made her time in the Gateway City very special.
“I am going to be pretty flexible about what people want to do when I come to visit their schools,” said Tinker. “And if students want
me to accompany them to their state legislatures to push for Student Free Expression bills, I would certainly do that. We certainly need to counteract decisions like Hazelwood that curbed student rights.”
Indeed, a big part of the rationale for bringing Tinker to St. Louis was to mark the sad 25th anniversary of another U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1988. In contrast to the Tinker ruling, the Hazelwood decision was a blow to student expression rights.
For more information about the upcoming Tinker Tour, go to the Web to: tinkertourusa.org/about/tinkertour/ or to www.facebook.com/TinkerTour.
For more information about details to organizing a Tinker event, please contact the writer of this blog post at: email@example.com.