First Amendment activist Mary Beth Tinker shares her story

Mary Beth Tinker
From left: Patrick File, Mary Beth Tinker, Mike Hiestand

Nov. 13, 2013 - If it weren't for Mary Beth Tinker and her schoolmates' desire to publicly mourn the victims of the Vietnam War and their willingness to fight to do so, students might not have the free speech rights they enjoy today.

Tinker was a plaintiff in a Supreme Court case that defined the constitutional rights of students in the U.S. and has been used as precedent in more than 6,000 court cases involving students' right to free expression in public schools.

Tinker discussed her experience during that historic moment and what it means for students nearly 50 years later during a lecture in the Grand Courtroom in the School of Law Center on Nov. 12. The event was sponsored by the School of Communications and School of Law.

In December 1965, Tinker was among a small group of students who wore black armbands with peace symbols to school in protest of the Vietnam War, despite the school district's policy prohibiting armbands. This act of disobedience resulted in the suspension of five students, including Tinker.

"I followed my conscience," said Tinker, in response to why she wore the armband to school. "This is a way of life, standing up for what's right."

Tinker explained that the families of those suspended were approached by the American Civil Liberties Union, which wanted to sue the Iowa school district for violating its students' First Amendment rights. In 1969, the Supreme Court sided with the students, handing down a 7-2 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines.

While the free speech of public school students is protected, Tinker cautioned that there is still opposition to this ruling and she would not be surprised if it landed in the hands of the Supreme Court once again.

Tinker is traveling throughout the United States with Mike Hiestand, a First Amendment attorney, to share her story.