Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, a landmark case that solidified students’ right to free speech.
Mary Beth and John Tinker came to Iowa State University Monday to talk about their case and its impact not only on the First Amendment, but how it carried on into impact the social and political climate of today.
In Dec. 1969, Mary Beth Tinker, her brother John Tinker and their friend Chris Eckhardt went to school wearing black armbands to protest the deaths occurring because of the Vietnam War and support a truce between the two sides.
John Tinker said the plan started when their father organized a bus of Iowans who were concerned about the Vietnam War and Operation Rolling Thunder to travel to Washington, D.C. to participate in a march.
“A man on the bus said that there were people who were going to wear black armbands,” John Tinker said. “Black armbands have been a traditional symbol of mourning, and civil rights movements had used black armbands to express mourning when the four little girls were killed in Birmingham, and when the three civil rights workers were also killed a year later.”
John Tinker also explained the black armbands they wore were to mourn the deaths on both sides of the conflict. All they planned to do was wear the strips of black on their arms, but after another student wrote an article in the school newspaper about what they were planning to do and explaining the motivations behind it, the schools banned the armbands.
The Tinkers tried to convince the superintendent of the school to overturn the ban, but the superintendent refused to, and suggested they take it up with the school board in January. However, part of the point of the armbands was to support the Christmas truce, which would be over by January.
Mary Beth Tinker said 50 students were originally signed up to wear the armbands, but when the principals banned the armbands, the number of people interested dropped significantly, down to only five.
John Tinker had been involved in non-violence training as part of the civil rights movement and was concerned because the students who had planned to wear the armbands had not met since the ban was placed on the armbands.
Mary Beth Tinker said she was nervous when she wore her armband to school and when she was asked to remove it, she did immediately but was suspended anyway.
“It shows how you don’t need to have the most courage in the whole world,” Mary Beth Tinker said. “You can have a little bit of courage and still do something.”
“We didn’t know what to do, but we felt we needed to wear them anyway,” John Tinker said.
The Tinkers and Eckhardt remained wearing their armbands and were sent home Dec. 16 and 17, where they stayed until after New Year’s Day.
They filed a complaint with the U.S. District Court, which “upheld the constitutionality of the school authorities' action on the ground that it was reasonable in order to prevent disturbance of school discipline,” and dismissed the case, according to 393 U.S. 503.
John Tinker said his father had asked if he wanted to appeal the case, and they agreed it was the best course of action, and it would add to the publicity of their movement.
“We were trying to protest the war,” John Tinker said. “We weren’t really seeking to set a First Amendment precedent.”
Most of the pushback and resistance to their case came from adults, Mary Beth Tinker said. The adults threw red paint at their house and called them Communists for their protesting.
“We aren’t Communists; we are Methodists,” Mary Beth said their mother always said.
The case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court which, on Feb. 24, 1969, ruled that free speech was applicable to students within public schools.
“In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism,” Justice Abe Fortas wrote in the majority opinion. “School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students… are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the State. In our system, students may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate.”
The First Amendment
The First Amendment states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
“The key aspect of the First Amendment, this umbrella idea of freedom of expression, is that it really is key to democracy,” said Julie Roosa, adjunct assistant professor of journalism and First Amendment specialist. “It is the foundation. It is how we are able to debate ideas of all kinds to hopefully reach a consensus and, hopefully, the best ideas win.”
The Tinker case established the principle that a United States citizen doesn’t lose their right to free speech, or any of their First Amendment rights, once they walk into public buildings, such as schools, Roosa said. It established that rights are fundamental and citizens carry them everywhere.
“It is designed to ensure that the government doesn’t overstep into areas that we, as individuals, have as freedoms,” Roosa said.
There are some cases where First Amendment rights may be restricted constitutionally. One could place time and place restrictions on, for example, the right to protest. Communities can require individuals to get a permit before they stage a protest, though the permits should not be given based on the content of the protest, Roosa said.
However, the First Amendment applies to people of all ages, and Mary Beth Tinker had the right to express herself and to make her views known in a peaceful way.
“It’s not as if [First Amendment rights] starts at age 18, or age 21 or age 25. It’s a fundamental right, I believe, from the time of birth,” Roosa said.
The Tinker Tour
The Tinkers opened their lecture by recognizing those in the audience who had protested or fought in the Vietnam War.
“This was not just us as individuals,” John Tinker said. “We were part of a movement, part of the anti-war movement. I want to thank you all who participated in the movement for being here tonight and for being there then.”
When asked what they learned from their experience in the case, John Tinker said he felt that as they protested, they were the vocal minority and faced an uphill battle, and he learned that while it was okay to take on those positions, you don’t always win.
Mary Beth said she learned the power that young people have when they are advocating for themselves.
“Young people have a lot of power that is untapped, and that can be mobilized to make changes and young people also have been at the forefront,” Mary Beth Tinker said. “I’ve learned a lot about the role of young people in making history and changing history and taking us towards our democratic ideals.”
The Tinkers also spoke about the power of youth in today’s social and political climate and how inspired they were by the way young people are using their voices.
“Students today are much more activated than the high school students were when we were in school,” John Tinker said.
The lecture was opened up to questions from the audience.
One question asked was about how the Tinkers felt about children being perceived as being used as props whenever they speak out about issues.
Mary Beth Tinker said that children should never be used, but that just because they are speaking doesn’t mean they don’t know what they are speaking about. She said that children have minds of their own and know how to use them.
“People loved to say that we didn’t know anything about Vietnam,” Mary Beth Tinker said. “Well, as it turned out, most adults didn’t know anything about Vietnam.”
John Tinker added that while children may not know history, they know ideas. They know that death and destruction is bad.
Another question asked was about advice for people who didn’t have as great a support system as the Tinkers did.
Mary Beth Tinker said that even if your parents don’t support you, all you need is to find one person who does. A friend, another family member or even a person from the internet.
“If worst comes to worst, call me, write me, and I will do what I can,” Mary Beth Tinker said.