Interview: Mary Beth Tinker
by Katherine Hung | Summer 2017
Mary Beth Tinker, the woman at the center of the Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District Supreme Court decision, spoke to the HCLR about her recent work and First Amendment rights in the United States.
Most thirteen-year olds don’t appeal their case to the highest court in the land and win, setting a powerful precedent for the protection of student rights in public schools. But then again, Mary Beth Tinker wasn’t like most girls.
From an early age, the young Des Moines, Iowa, native and her siblings were engaged in advocacy inspired by her parents who—as part of the social gospel movement—believed in putting their faith into action. The Tinkers were readily involved in the civil rights movement and fair employment issues, among other causes, and it was this background of activism that stimulated Mary Beth to express her feelings toward the Vietnam War in her eighth grade classroom.
Troubled by the graphic images she saw on the TV each night—pictures of soldiers in body bags and Vietnamese children running from their burning huts—Mary Beth yearned for love and forgiveness to prevail over the seemingly perpetual killing. Along with her brother John, friend Chris Eckhardt, and other Des Moines School District students, Mary Beth chose to wear a black armband to school in mourning of the fallen on both sides of the war and in support of a Christmas truce. Her school district, having learned of the students’ plan, preemptively banned the armbands. Nevertheless, Mary Beth wore hers on December 16th, 1965. She was immediately sent home and suspended. Her school’s disciplinary action was only the start of the pushback to Mary Beth’s peaceful protest. She and her parents soon received hostile messages, and even death threats, from members of the community.
When the school board refused to recognize their right to free expression, Mary Beth, John, and Chris took the school district to court with the help of the ACLU. The three lost in the district and appeals courts, then took their case to the Supreme Court. In February of 1969, the high court ruled in their favor in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The landmark decision guaranteed that public school students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” establishing a precedent for the protection of students’ First Amendment liberties. Although the Tinker standard has been limited by subsequent Supreme Court cases—namely, Bethel v. Frazer (1986), Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988), and Morse v. Frederick (2007)—the Tinker case has been highly cited in succeeding opinions and remains at the bedrock of students’ rights today.
Over fifty years years since she first donned her black armband, Mary Beth continues to further students’ liberties today. Her home away from home during the 2013-14 school year was a 23 foot RV, as she traveled the country on a Tinker Tour with Mike Hiestand, an attorney with the Student Press Law Center. The two sought to promote civics and encourage students to know and use their liberties. “Mike and I knew that students needed encouragement, so we came up with the idea to speak in schools throughout the country,” Mary Beth said. She and Mike began the tour in 2013, ultimately clocking 25,000 miles and reaching more than 20,000 students at over 100 stops nationwide. They traveled visibly, yet unassumingly in their RV, often stopping to sleep in school parking lots or teachers’ driveways. By day, Mary Beth inspired young people with her story and those of other young people who are breathing life into the First Amendment today. Speaking at a myriad of venues—from elementary schools to churches, youth detention facilities to national conventions—her goal was to generate enthusiasm for civics and young voices, for as she stated, “we live in mighty times” and “mighty times are not a time to be silent.”
“Now is an important moment in our history, especially for young people whose voices are too often under attack,” said Mary Beth. She remains concerned by “people who’d like to discourage young voices,” “voter restrictions that have been passed to cut back on the votes of youth,” and “the lack of support for civics and civics teachers in high schools”—issues that endanger students’ civic involvement. Nevertheless, in the face of these obstructive forces, students continue the fight to be heard. Mary Beth elaborated, “So many students are speaking up about so many issues, whether it’s about the environment or racial justice, gender equality or dress codes. Students are standing up in their schools, and it has been really heartening because there’s definitely an energy in the country of young people wanting to have a voice, and using their voices.” To foster this spirit, Mary Beth finds it crucial for “students to hear stories of other youth who, throughout history and today, have made a difference by bringing the Constitution to life.” Such stories can inspire young people to exercise their freedoms, engage in civic activism, and explore other means of effecting change.
Underlying Mary Beth’s desire to inspire student action by sharing these stories on her Tinker Tour is a deep seated belief in the First Amendment. “We have to be able to honor all opinions,” she says. “We can’t look to censorship, because censorship goes against basic democratic principles, and we might be censored next.” Mary Beth points to recent events: “Of course Milo [Yiannopoulos] at Berkeley, for example, should be allowed to speak, and students should be allowed to assemble and protest his speaking. And in Portland, they were going to have these white supremacist rallies and the mayor of Portland wanted to censor that. But I do believe that would be a mistake, because we have to meet those voices with other voices.” Mary Beth’s dedication to the free expression of all—regardless of the content of their convictions—remains steadfast.
Mary Beth still visits schools across the nation in the fall and spring, in addition to speaking with students via Skype. Her message is one that resonates with many young people today: “Join together. Use your wonderful creativity and initiative to think of how you can prevail and have your voices heard.”