Mary Beth Tinker and her brother John with the armbands that made history

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STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.3, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, SL.6-8.1, WHST.6-8.1, WHST.6-8.7

C3 (D2/6-8): Civ.1, Civ.2, Civ.6, Civ. 7, Civ.10, Civ.12, Civ.13, His.1, His.2, His.3, His.5, His.15

NCSS: Civic ideals and practices; Time, continuity, and change


FLASHBACK

True Teens of History:

This Girl Fought for Free Speech

How a 13-year-old’s 1960s court battle helped guarantee your right to express yourself in school

Mary Beth Tinker had never felt so nervous. As she got ready for school on a snowy winter morning, the quiet straight-A student knew she was about to do something that could get her into serious trouble. 

But the 13-year-old believed she had no other choice. It was 1965, and U.S. troops were fighting in the Vietnam War (see “You Might Need to Know . . .”  below). 

“All the time, we were seeing on the news: war, war, war,” says Mary Beth, now 67. “The bombings, the kids running from their huts screaming—it seemed like everything was on fire.” 

The more Mary Beth learned about the war in the Southeast Asian country, the more she wanted to protest it. So on December 16, 1965, she walked into her junior high in Des Moines, Iowa, wearing a black armband with a peace sign on it. Mary Beth meant the armband to be a symbol of mourning for both the Americans and the Vietnamese who had been killed in the war.

That didn’t go over well with the principal. He said Mary Beth had disrupted other students by wearing the armband—and suspended her.

The Tinker family believed the suspension violated Mary Beth’s First Amendment right to free speech and sued the school district. Eventually, the case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

In 1969, the Court ruled 7-2 in favor of the Tinkers. The justices stated that students and teachers don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Fifty years later, the case—Tinker v. Des Moines—remains one of the most important in U.S. history. It established that public school students can voice their opinions. 

Or as Mary Beth puts it today: “Young people can speak up about the things that affect their lives.”

Mary Beth Tinker had never felt so nervous. The quiet straight-A student was getting ready for school on a snowy winter morning. She knew she was about to do something that could get her into major trouble.

But the 13-year-old believed she had no other choice. It was 1965. U.S. troops were fighting in the Vietnam War. (See “You Might Need to Know . . .” below)

“All the time, we were seeing on the news: war, war, war,” says Mary Beth. She is now 67. “The bombings, the kids running from their huts screaming. It seemed like everything was on fire.”

The more Mary Beth learned about the war in the Southeast Asian country, the more she wanted to protest it. So on December 16, 1965, she walked into her junior high in Des Moines, Iowa, wearing a black armband. It had a peace sign on it. Mary Beth meant the armband to be a symbol of mourning for Americans and Vietnamese who had been killed in the war.

The principal found that unacceptable. He said Mary Beth had disrupted other students by wearing the armband. He suspended her.

The Tinker family believed the suspension violated Mary Beth’s First Amendment right to free speech. The Tinkers sued the school district. The case eventually made it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Court ruled 7-2 in favor of the Tinkers in 1969. The justices said that students and teachers do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Fifty years later, the Tinker v. Des Moines case remains one of the most important in U.S. history. It established that public school students can voice their opinions.

Or as Mary Beth puts it today, “Young people can speak up about the things that affect their lives.”

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The Spirit of the ’60s

Mary Beth grew up in the 1960s, a time when many Americans, especially young people, were pushing for big changes in society. 

“Kids today say they’re ‘woke,’” Mary Beth says. “Many young people through history have been woke.” 

In the ’60s, young people helped lead the civil rights movement. In 1963, thousands of students marched in Birmingham, Alabama, to demand an end to racial segregation. The police released dogs on them and blasted them with water from powerful fire hoses. Some young protesters were thrown in jail. But their courage helped lead to laws outlawing segregation.

Mary Beth grew up in the 1960s. That was a time when many Americans, especially young people, were pushing for big changes in society.

“Kids today say they’re ‘woke,’” Mary Beth says. “Many young people through history have been woke.”

Young people helped lead the civil rights movement in the ’60s. Thousands of students marched in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. They did it to demand an end to racial segregation. The police released dogs on them and blasted them with water from powerful fire hoses. Some young protesters were thrown in jail. But their courage helped lead to laws banning segregation.

“Young people can speak up about the things that affect their lives.”

The Vietnam War moved students to action too. In 1965, the U.S. began sending combat troops to Vietnam. Most Americans supported the war at the time. But a small, vocal antiwar movement was forming—especially among young people. 

As Mary Beth and her brother John, 15, heard about antiwar protests, they felt inspired. The siblings and three friends agreed to wear armbands to school to express opposition to the war. 

“We saw young people standing up for the things they taught us in school and in church but weren’t reality, like fairness, equality, justice, and peace,” Mary Beth recalls. “That was a turning point for us.”

The Vietnam War moved students to action too. The U.S. began sending combat troops to Vietnam in 1965. Most Americans supported the war at the time. But a small, outspoken antiwar movement was forming, especially among young people.

Mary Beth and her brother John, 15, felt inspired when they heard about antiwar protests. The siblings and three friends agreed to wear armbands to school to protest the war.

“We saw young people standing up for the things they taught us in school and in church but weren’t reality, like fairness, equality, justice, and peace,” Mary Beth recalls. “That was a turning point for us.”

Breaking the Rules

But as Mary Beth, John, and their friends were planning their protest, school officials learned about it. They quickly banned all armbands and said that anyone who broke the rule would be suspended. 

The Tinker siblings and their friends decided to protest anyway. Expressing their views was worth a suspension, they reasoned. Still, they worried. On the day he wore the armband, 15-year-old Chris Eckhardt had a “dry throat and butterfly stomach,” he later said.

As for Mary Beth, she thought she would serve her suspension and move on. “I had no idea,” she says, “that our small action was going to turn into such a big thing.”

School officials learned about the protest that Mary Beth, John, and their friends were planning. They quickly banned all armbands. They said that anyone who broke the rule would be suspended.

The Tinker siblings and their friends decided to protest anyway. They reasoned that expressing their views was worth a suspension. But they still worried. On the day he wore the armband, 15-year-old Chris Eckhardt had a “dry throat and butterfly stomach,” he later said.

Mary Beth thought she would serve her suspension and move on. “I had no idea,” she says, “that our small action was going to turn into such a big thing.”

“When you find an issue that you care about, then life becomes so meaningful.” 

Fighting It Out

The Tinkers didn’t take the suspension lightly. The family appealed the punishment to the school board. Hundreds of people showed up to the board’s meeting. Some supported the teens. But many others called their protest un-American. The board held firm: The Tinkers and their friends were suspended. Case closed.

Still, the students and their parents refused to give up. Both the Tinker and the Eckhardt families opposed the war in Vietnam and stood behind their kids. With the help of lawyers from a group called the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the families sued the school district. The case began to make its way through the courts.

At the same time, more men were being drafted into the military, and the antiwar movement was growing. In 1967, about 100,000 people demonstrated against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C.  

However, many Americans still considered it wrong to oppose the war. As a result, the Tinkers became the focus of a lot of anger. The family received hate mail and death threats, and someone shattered their car window with a brick.

The Tinkers did not take the suspension lightly. The family appealed the punishment to the school board. Hundreds of people showed up at the board’s meeting. Some supported the teens. But many others called their protest un-American. The board held firm. The Tinkers and their friends were suspended. Case closed.

But the students and their parents refused to give up. Both the Tinker and the Eckhardt families opposed the war in Vietnam. They stood behind their kids. The families sued the school district with the help of lawyers from a group called the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The case began to make its way through the courts.

At the same time, more men were being drafted into the military. The antiwar movement was growing. In 1967, about 100,000 people demonstrated against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C.

However, many Americans still thought it was wrong to oppose the war. The Tinkers became the focus of a lot of anger as a result. They received hate mail and death threats. Someone shattered their car window with a brick.

Making History 

At the center of the Tinker case was the First Amendment, which guarantees, among other things, the right to free speech. The amendment’s protections had been spelled out in the Constitution. But until Tinker, the courts hadn’t considered how the First Amendment applied to students. 

“Students were supposed to go to school and do what they were told,” says Steve Wermiel, a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C. “It was unclear what rights they had.”

Two years after the Tinkers filed suit in 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear their case. On February 24, 1969, the justices finally delivered their ruling: Students had every right to speak their minds as long as they didn’t disrupt school activities.

“Our Constitution does not permit officials of the State to deny [students’] form of expression,” the Court’s decision read. 

By then, Mary Beth was in 11th grade. After the long court battle, she was surprised, she told a reporter, “that important judges like those on the Supreme Court would rule in favor of kids.” 

The Tinker family celebrated that night with ice cream. “But I had sad feelings as well,” says Mary Beth. After all, the Vietnam War, with all of its suffering and death, raged on.

At the center of the Tinker case was the First Amendment. It guarantees the right to free speech, among other things. The amendment’s protections had been spelled out in the Constitution. But until Tinker, the courts had not considered how the First Amendment applied to students.

“Students were supposed to go to school and do what they were told,” says Steve Wermiel. He is a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C. “It was unclear what rights they had.”

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case two years after the Tinkers filed suit in 1966. On February 24, 1969, the justices finally delivered their ruling. Students had every right to speak their minds as long as they did not disrupt school activities.

“Our Constitution does not permit officials of the State to deny students’ form of expression,” the Court’s decision read.

By then, Mary Beth was in 11th grade. After the long court battle, she told a reporter she was surprised “that important judges like those on the Supreme Court would rule in favor of kids.”

The Tinker family celebrated that night with ice cream. “But I had sad feelings as well,” says Mary Beth. That was because the Vietnam War still raged on with all of its suffering and death.

Des Moines Register File Photo via USA TODAY NETWORK 

A FAMILY FIGHT: Mary Beth Tinker (left) with her mother, Lorena, at a school board meeting in 1966

Student Power!

How does the case affect you now? The nationwide student protests on March 14, 2018, offer one example. On that day, thousands of students walked out of their classes to demand an end to gun violence after a shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, killed 17 people.

Schools wrestled with how to respond to the walkouts. Some officials helped students protest. Others threatened to suspend them. 

Before the protests, the ACLU reminded students via social media that schools could punish them for not attending class. What schools couldn’t do, however, was discipline teens who walked out “more harshly because of the political nature of or the message behind” their actions, the legal experts wrote.

The fact that schools can’t punish students simply because they don’t agree with their views comes from the Tinker case. The ruling gave students the right to “think critically for themselves and express themselves,” says Wermiel. “It was almost a Declaration of Independence for students.”

On the day of the 2018 walkouts, Mary Beth, now a retired nurse, joined student protesters near her McLean, Virginia, home. She told them to keep speaking up. 

“When you find an issue that you care about, that affects your life, and you join up with a group of others to take action,” she says, “then life becomes so meaningful.” 

How does the Tinker case affect you now? The nationwide student protests on March 24, 2018, offer one example. Thousands of students walked out of their classes that day. They were demanding an end to gun violence after 17 people were killed in a shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

Schools wrestled with how to respond to the walkouts. Some officials helped students protest. Others threatened to suspend them.

Before the protests, the ACLU used social media to remind students that schools could punish them for not attending class. But the legal experts added that schools could not discipline teens who walked out “more harshly because of the political nature of or the message behind” their actions.

The fact that schools cannot punish students simply because they do not agree with their views comes from the Tinker case. The Tinker ruling gave students the right to “think critically for themselves and express themselves,” says Wermiel. “It was almost a Declaration of Independence for students.”

Mary Beth is now a retired nurse. On the day of the 2018 walkouts, she joined student protesters near her home in McLean, Virginia. She told them to keep speaking up.

“When you find an issue that you care about, that affects your life, and you join up with a group of others to take action,” she says, “then life becomes so meaningful.”

Write About It! What limits—if any—should be placed on students’ right to free speech? Write a paragraph on your view.

YOU MIGHT NEED TO KNOW...

AP Images

A fireball erupts near U.S. troops in South Vietnam in 1966. 

THE VIETNAM WAR (1954-1975) was a conflict that pitted Communist North Vietnam against U.S.-backed South Vietnam. 

THE FIRST AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution safeguards freedoms of religion, speech, and the press; the right to peaceably protest; and the right to petition the government.

THE SUPREME COURT is the nation’s highest court. It has final say on whether laws or rulings by lower courts are constitutional. 

THE VIETNAM WAR (1954-1975) was a conflict that pitted Communist North Vietnam against U.S.-backed South Vietnam. 

THE FIRST AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution safeguards freedoms of religion, speech, and the press; the right to peaceably protest; and the right to petition the government.

THE SUPREME COURT is the nation’s highest court. It has final say on whether laws or rulings by lower courts are constitutional. 

WHAT THIS MEANS FOR YOU

You’re probably wondering: Does the Tinker ruling mean I can say anything in school? Nope. The ruling ensured that students have free speech rights in public school. But school officials must balance students’ First Amendment rights with the need to maintain order. So, student expression is allowed as long as it doesn’t cause a “substantial disruption” or violate the rights of others.

You’re probably wondering: Does the Tinker ruling mean I can say anything in school? Nope. The ruling ensured that students have free speech rights in public school. But school officials must balance students’ First Amendment rights with the need to maintain order. So, student expression is allowed as long as it doesn’t cause a “substantial disruption” or violate the rights of others.

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