Mary Beth Tinker and Mike Hiestand discuss their upcoming “Tinker Tour” with Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte.
Frank LoMonte: Hi everybody, it’s Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, thanks for joining us for yet another monthly installment of the SPLC podcast, where we talk about legal issues and developments of impact to those working in the student media. So I have to confess, that this month is a little bit of a First Amendment fan-boy geek moment for me, it’s a chance to have a conversation with one of the true heroines of the First Amendment. Somebody I’ve gotten to know for my five years at this job. One of the very first phone calls that I got and still the most exciting one that I got when I took over as director of the Student Press Law Center and that was from Mary Beth Tinker. Mary Beth Tinker should not need any introduction to anyone who has passed a middle school civics course, but just in case, Mary Beth Tinker’s name should be familiar to everybody as the Tinker in Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that firmly established the First Amendment rights of students in America’s public schools to express in the non-disruptive expression of their choice, even on school grounds and even during school time. We’re delighted to have Mary Beth with us this month to talk about an exciting project that she and our other guest, Mike Hiestand, are launching together. Mike, too, is someone who should be no introduction to folks who know the SPLC. For 20 years, Mike worked for us as a staff attorney, helping more than 10,000 students and teachers with individual phone calls on our legal hotline, covering the country DG workshops, being the primary author of the “Law of the Student Press” reference book that is in newsrooms and classrooms across the country. Mike is now living on the West Coast, works for the SPLC on a special assignment basis and a consulting basis and is still a very valued friend and ally of ours. And Mike Hiestand and Mary Beth Tinker, thanks for being with us today. And I guess let’s just go ahead and dive right in. And Mary Beth, for those who flunked middle school civics, take us back and just share for a minute the story of the Tinker vs. Des Moines case and why this should still resonate with people all these years later.
Mary Beth Tinker: Thanks, Frank! It’s so good to be with you and Mike today and all the listeners as we talk about civics and the rights of youth and there’s so many things going on today with young people standing up and speaking up and I think young people need their rights, need to know their rights and use them more than ever. So, when I was a young girl growing up, it was in a time like this that actually when there were a lot of important issues to be decided in our country and in our world. Things having to do with the environment, I mean the environmental movement was really started at that time with “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, the book that really changed everyone’s thinking about the environment. And then we had, of course, the racial issues, the civil rights movement, also immigration issues, even gay issues. There was a big gay marriage case at our Supreme Court, too, back then. It was decided in 1967, the Loving case. So it was a very similar time, when so many issues and so many things that young people wanted also to take part in having a say about these things that were going on in our world. And so, I was raised pretty much in the Church. My dad was a Methodist preacher in Des Moines, Iowa, and so of course we learned these values of brotherhood and my parents decided, why wait for heaven for that, we should put this into action on Earth. And let’s jump in and work on brotherhood and those kinds of issues right here on Earth. So they got involved with some of the Civil Rights issues. When I was five years old, for example, there was a swimming pool in town in Atlantic, Iowa and they wouldn’t allow black kids to swim there. And so, my dad decided that wasn’t very Christianly and it wasn’t very democratic, so he and some other kids, young people, went up to the City Hall and worked on changing that.
That’s kind of the way that I was raised, so by the mid-1960s, when people were speaking up and standing up—1963—we’re just passing the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham Children’s March, where thousands of kids in Birmingham, Alabama spoke up and got out in the streets and so many of them were arrested. And they even stuck the dogs on them and fire hoses and all of these black kids there with Martin Luther King and others, they were standing up for what was right, standing up for democracy. And so, I would see these kinds of things on TV and it made a big impression on me and then by 1965, when the Vietnam War was building up, there had been about 1,000 soldiers killed in the war by then and so us kids decided to do something about it because we have these examples of other kids that speak up and stand up, so we just decided to wear black armbands to school to support a truce that was being proposed by senator and also mourn the dead in Vietnam. And there was just a handful of us, by that time my dad was with the Quakers and so some of the kids in our Quaker meeting and also some of the kids at the other youth group that we were with, the Unitarian youth, they got involved, and just a few of us kids, a small group decided that we would do this. And we were just really emotionally moved by what was going on, on TV when we watched the war. We would see the soldiers on the ground in the body bags and the flaming, burning huts, and all of these things going on, it just looked like the world was on fire when we watched the news. And kids in our neighborhood were being called up to war, so we just wanted to say something about it and do something about it. So, the principals, they found out about it and decided that was too controversial and they made a ruling against us wearing the armbands. It was in 1965, I was in eighth grade, I was 13-years-old. My brother John and Chris Eckhardt and Chris Singer, Bruce Clark, Ross Peterson, just a few of us decided to do it and even though it was against the rules, it was a hard decision because it was against the rule. But, in the end, we had these examples of other people to stand up for what they believe in. Like Martin Luther King, even, and those kind of people. So we decided that we had our conscience and we wanted to use our First Amendment rights too. So a few of us were suspended and my parents, they kind of understood because they had at first, they didn’t want us to do it, but then they understood, because we said, look that’s how you raised us, you gave us these examples, like going to the swimming pool to speak up. So, we were suspended and then I guess it would’ve been the end of the whole thing. But then there’s a group called the American Civil Liberties Union and they came and offered a lawyer because they thought kids should have rights too. And they go to the Supreme Court a lot because their whole thing is the Bill of Rights and standing up for it. So that’s what happened and then my life went on and I was in junior high and high school and then by 1969, we finally won the case. We lost at first at the District Court and then at the Appeals Court, and of course I thought we’d lose the whole thing, because I thought kids wouldn’t have a chance against people like the teachers and the principals and things. But, some of the school board was in favor of us and there was mixed feelings about it. But in 1969, the Court ruled by 7-2 that neither students nor teachers lose their rights to express themselves in school. So it was a great victory not only for us, but for young people all over the country.
Frank LoMonte: That’s a fantastic story and a fantastic precedent that still stands to this day and something that every school kid should learn about, and not just learn about, should be able to live in their life. Mike, let’s turn to you and tell us about this concept that we’re here to talk about today—the Tinker Tour. Tell us about this idea, how did it come about and what are you and Mary Beth aspiring to do?
Mike Hiestand: Well, I joke with Mary Beth that I might have told her story more than she has, it’s probably not true. But for 20 years, like you’ve mentioned, I was an attorney with the Student Press Law Center and I continue to do some of that work. And the story of First Amendment rights for students starts with Mary Beth’s case. That’s how it is. So one of the things that I always did and I learned how powerful it was very early on, was I’d go into a classroom and maybe waiting to hear from an attorney and expecting all of these court cases and citations and things like that. But I’d lead with Mary Beth’s story and the mood in the room quickly changed. I mean there is a real power to her story. Mary Beth and I actually met, it was about 15 years into my job at the SPLC before I got to meet her in person. And like you Frank, there’s a star-struck sort of quality about meeting Mary Beth. And she’ll be the first to say that it’s not about her, it really is about the case.
Mary Beth Tinker: That’s pretty funny, that’s pretty funny.
Mike Hiestand: But you know, it’s true. You stand for something very, very important, very, very powerful. And so, she, when I was retiring from full-time work with the SPLC, the Society for Professional Journalists was kind enough to give me an award. And Mary Beth somehow saw that I was getting the award and she sent me a nice congratulatory email. And it was all part of feeling good and everything. I remember I was actually out in my hot tub, just kind of relaxing and just kind of from nowhere, this idea for the Tinker Tour came about. And I’d always dreamed about when I worked for the SPLC, kind of taking our show on the road and meeting students in their schools and kind of spreading our message that way instead of waiting for them to come to us and go to conventions and things like that. But when Mary Beth sent me the email, again, it just kind of all came together. I said, my goodness, it really is almost like being able to take someone like Rosa Parks on tour. She has an effect on students that is undeniable.
So what we’re trying to do with the Tinker Tour is it’s really very simple. We are trying to raise money to get a bus or a reliable RV is what I’m telling people and go on tour. And go from school to school and college to college and throw some conventions in along the way and just simply talk to students about the importance of free speech and the importance of civics education generally. And Mary Beth and I are kind of coming from different, and talking about doing the tour here, one of the things that we talked about is are our experience with the Vietnam War, I guess. About a year after Mary Beth wore her black armband to school and was suspended, my uncle, actually he was a fighter pilot, he went to Vietnam and was shot down and killed and left behind my five cousins. And then two years later, my dad was also a fighter pilot. I remember very clearly watching him take off to Vietnam. It was a very different sort of experience and when Mary Beth talks about wanting kids to be able to stand up and express themselves on issues like that, it really hits home in a very personal way. So, we really hope by taking our message on the road that we’re able to reach students that we might not otherwise have the opportunity to talk to.
Frank LoMonte:This is such a fun idea. I want to give everybody the website to look at, it’s called TinkerTourUSA.org. TinkerTourUSA.org and we’ll give that again at the close of the discussion. But I want to ask Mary Beth Tinker, you have obviously a great sense of the climate of the First Amendment at schools, you travel around to lots of them. You’re interacting with students all of the time. Why do you think in the year 2013, why do you think this message is important, is timely, is resonant? What is the importance of telling this story to young people about the role of the First Amendment in their lives?
Mary Beth Tinker: Frank, there are so many decisions that are being made about students right now that are going to affect them for years. Whether it has to do with the education system and what is it going to be like? What proportion of their results will be based on standardized testing? What public schools will be closed? I was just at a big event at the Department of Education where students had come form 30 cities and they wanted to speak to Arne Duncan about the issue of public school closings in their communities. From Detroit, Chicago, all over the place. There are issues having to do with, as I said, the environment. There’s a girl named Sarah Kavanagh, she just found out, she was living in Alabama, she found out that there was brominated vegetable oil in Gatorade. So she started an online petition and she got over 200,000 signatures on this and Gatorade has agreed to take out this flame retardant called brominated vegetable oil, which was in Gatorade. There are so many things going on in so many areas, whether it’s kids getting suspended and locked up. There’s the school-to-prison pipeline, which a lot of people have been talking about and concerned about. And just so many things that kids need to have some say about the issues and the decisions that are going to affect their lives. And they want to. Everywhere I go, because I travel a lot, now. I was just at four journalism conferences, Seattle, St. Louis, Ohio, D.C. Students are writing about these things in their papers and talking about them at their city councils and going to hearings in D.C. Some kids were just at a hearing talking about school closings issues. There are just so many things that students are speaking up and standing up about. And I think it’s great and I want to encourage them to know their rights and speak up about the issues that are going to affect them and that already are.
Frank LoMonte: Mike, let me throw that question to you and ask it in a slightly different way. Again, you spend and have spent for many years, a lot of time around young people, in schools, talking to teachers, talking to students. What is your sense of the health of the First Amendment in schools around the country and the urgency of getting this message out into the school communities?
Mary Beth Tinker: Well there’s a wonderful, sorry. You want to say something Mike?
Frank LoMonte:Mike, you start.
Mike Hiestand: Yeah, I was just going to say. It really, when you look back at Mary Beth’s case in 1969, it really was kind of the high mark of First Amendment protection for students in this country and ever since, for reasons that we all probably have different opinions about, the courts and schools and just society in general has tried to scale back those rights. And so, like Mary Beth said, there are a lot of students that are out there doing some very important work and some very exciting sort of work. But, certainly, in my time at the SPLC, it’s not easy to do sometimes in some places. Students are really having to fight to have their voices heard. There is a reason that big change happens with students and I think that that sometimes frightens the powers that be. Students don’t have mortgages to pay and families to support. When they actually are given the ability to have their voice heard, big things can happen. And I think that that’s been kind of scary. And so, we’ve seen the First Amendment rights for students significantly widdled away. And we’re just trying to, again, remind students that it’s not over yet. There are some really exciting things that are happening right now and simply because a principal or some other authority figures says you can’t, that doesn’t have to be the end of it.
Frank LoMonte: Go ahead, Mary Beth, you were going to add something to that.
Mary Beth Tinker: We are so lucky for our tour, the Tinker Tour, to have been endorsed by a number of leading civics education organizations. People like the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, National History Day, the National Council for Social Studies teachers, the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, which has invited us to kick off from their center, we’re so excited about that. And why are these groups endorsing? Because there is a lack of civics education in our country today and our democracy really depends on having an educated citizenry and one that uses the Constitution, uses the foundation of our democracy in practice. There have been some studies, there’s a group called iCivics, that Sandra Day O’Connor has been very involved with and she’s doing a great job of spreading civics education around. But these studies show that only one-third of Americans can name all three of the branches of government, for example. And one-third of Americans can’t name any. And these aren’t students; these are adults. Or that only half of Americans know that a decision by the Supreme Court, that is 5-4, it has the same weight as a decision that’s 9-0. Just things like that. How the Supreme Court works. What are the three branches of government? Basic civics education is not in a good place in our country right now and I think that’s why we’re getting the endorsement of so many organizations. The NAACP, the ACLU, the Close Up Foundation, the Newseum, we made a film there about our tour. And so many people are really behind us because they see that there’s a need more than ever in our country for basic civics education and to encourage. Young people take education home to their families, too, so we know that this will be a good thing not only for youth but for their families and the adults in their lives, as well.
Frank LoMonte: One of the things I love about your campaign on TinkerTourUSA.org is you’re trying to engage young people on platforms like Instagram to send in a copy of their favorite celebrity if they can ambush a celebrity and get them to flash a peace sign, which is sort of what you decided, which is great symbol, kind of the universal symbol of the Tinker Tour, that will be really cool and I will really look forward to seeing some of those results as kids get out there with their cameras and start shooting. That will be really cool. And I also know that you’ve been invited, in addition to the National Constitution Center, you’ll be at the Supreme Court in the fall during the Supreme Court’s fall term to talk about the Tinker case. You and your brother, right?
Mary Beth Tinker: Yes, we’re really excited about just going around the country to all different kinds of places. At the Supreme Court, there’s going to be a talk about the case and the people involved in the case. And we’re just excited about all of the conferences that are coming up that we’ll be able to stop at and to talk to students, teachers and others about the First Amendment, the Constitution, journalism education and their rights and their responsibilities in our democracy. It’s really exciting.
Mike Hiestand: You know one of the things that I’ve seen, just real quick here, is Mary Beth and I have done, we did kind of a quick, mini version of the Tinker Tour, just kind of to check and see how it would fly when Mary Beth was out visiting me here. And it is just, Frank you and I have been out talking to students for years and years. We have never got a tenth of the response, the enthusiasm that Mary Beth generates. And it’s just so rewarding, I guess, and just so exciting to see students jazzed up about these important topics. If we can make sure that we can allow as many students and teachers and journalists. I mean we see this from journalists, too. I mean, they’re big fans. So if we can kind of stir up that enthusiasm on kind of more of a national level, it’s going to be great fun.
Mary Beth Tinker: And the fun is really mine. I just love being with all of the kids and hearing the things that they have to say.
Mike Hiestand:You do!
Mary Beth Tinker: A seventh grader in Ohio just told me recently, she thinks that we’re fresher! And I just love it because they really are fresher and they really want to take action. They’re naturally geared to take action and to stand up and to get involved. Most of the time, I work as a pediatric nurse, so I have a lot of fun with kids, I like kids a lot and I know that this tour is going to be really great and have a lot of great energy.
Frank LoMonte: Well, Mike, just by way of wrap up, tell folks how they can get involved in various ways and be supporters of this initiative and help make the Tinker Tour happen this year.
Mike Hiestand:Yeah, well, the first thing is we need a bus. Or a reliable RV. And so, we have launched a crowdsource campaign on StartSomeGood.com. You can just search for Tinker Tour there. And we’re looking to raise money for a bus and for the gas to put in the bus and for all the various logistical things that go into making this tour happen. So that would be the first thing. The campaign ends at the end of this month, so May 31. We’re trying to raise at least $50,000 there. That will get us two months on the road, maybe a little bit more; we’ll see how it goes. Ideally, we’re looking to be on the road for about five to six months, because we already have about 100 invitations. So fitting everybody in is going to be tough.
Frank LoMonte: Wow.
Mike Hiestand: So, ideally we’d like to raise about $100,000 to do that. But a lot more information is available on our Start Some Good campaign site page or you can also go to our website, as you mentioned, just TinkerTourUSA.org.
Frank LoMonte: That’s great, well definitely wanted people to check out the StartSomeGood.com site, to check the TinkerTourUSA.org site and let me throw in one more just for good measure. Not necessarily a coincidence that this tour falls on top of the 25th anniversary of the Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier decision, if the Tinker case was the high water mark for student free expression, then Hazelwood was potentially the low water mark in 1988. This year has been a year of reflection and reassessment around the country as people are taking stock of the detrimental impact that Hazelwood has had on the climate of schools and the ability, especially of student journalists, to freely express themselves. And it would be great if folks would check out the CureHazelwood.org site to get more information about the effects of Hazelwood, the symptoms of Hazelwood, how you can get checked out and how you can get cured. So I just want to say thanks again to two of my First Amendment heroes, Mike Hiestand and Mary Beth Tinker for being with us on the podcast today. We hope you’ll check out their website and we hope you’ll check out all the resources that are available to you on the SPLC’s site, www.SPLC.org. If you’re a student journalist or a journalism educator and you’ve got any questions about the law, the First Amendment or about your legal rights to gather and share news, we hope you’ll send us an email, SPLC@splc.org, call our hotline at (703) 807-1904 or send us a Tweet, we’re on Twitter @SPLC. Thanks for listening and we’ll talk to you next month.