At the age of 13, Mary Beth Tinker fought a challenge to free speech that would eventually make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. More than five decades later, she is still fighting for free speech.
Tinker will give a presentation at Ithaca College on Tuesday, Sept. 19, at 7 p.m. in Textor 102. Titled “Mighty Times: The First Amendment & Civic Action,” her talk is part of the college’s observance of Constitution Day. It is free and open to the public.
Mary Beth Tinker and her brother John in 1965.
In 1965, Tinker and a group of classmates in Des Moines, Iowa, decided to wear black armbands in school as a protest against the Vietnam War. She and several others were suspended when a new policy was adopted by the school district that prohibited wearing such armbands because it was claimed that it disturbed learning. They sued the district for infringing on their right to free expression as enshrined in First Amendment.
After working its way through the lower courts, the case was finally decided on February 24, 1969, when the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that by suspending Tinker and her peers for wearing the armbands, the school district had indeed violated the students’ First Amendment rights. The decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District — which found that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate” — has been the legal standard for student free expression ever since.
Tinker grew up to have a career as a pediatric nurse, but she continues to speak out on this issue by conducting lecture tours across the United States to teach young people about their rights.
Her local visit is sponsored by the college’s Department of Education and Legal Studies Program, along with the Ithaca City School District, where she will also be speaking at Boynton Middle School and Ithaca High School.
In 2000, an annual youth advocacy award of the Marshall-Brennan Project at American University’s Washington College of Law honored Tinker by naming the award after her. In 2006, the ACLU National Board of Directors’ Youth Affairs Committee renamed its annual youth affairs award the Mary Beth Tinker Youth Involvement Award.
Constitution Day is an annual commemoration of the September 17, 1787, signing of the United States Constitution. On or around that day, all educational institutions receiving federal funding are required to hold an educational program pertaining to the U.S. Constitution.