‘Tinker Tour’ a chance for honest talk about state of student rights

As this magazine goes to press, with it is going the Fourth Edition of the Student Press Law Center’s signature reference book, Law of the Student Press, compiling 40 years of the SPLC’s legal research into a single volume.

As part of reissuing Law of the Student Press, our attorneys reread hundreds of court rulings that comprise the history of student rights in America. Those rulings are relatively recent — the “granddaddy” of college press cases, Dickey v. Alabama State Board of Education, is only 46 years old — and yet their tone and emphasis has drastically changed in just a few short years.

It’s striking to remember how fiercely protective our courts were, until very recent times, of the rights of students to say or write just about anything. Consider cases such as Healy v. James, in which the Supreme Court told Central Connecticut State University that a radical activist organization was entitled to receive the benefits of recognition as an official student group regardless of whether the group advocated “violence and disruption.”

“The College, acting here as the instrumentality of the State, may not restrict speech or association simply because it finds the views expressed by any group to be abhorrent,” the Court said in 1972.

Fast-forward to the present. Colleges that once were forbidden from withholding support even from “abhorrent” groups are now routinely being allowed to kick students out of school just because they say disagreeable things. Students like Amanda Tatro, who was disciplined by the University of Minnesota for “disrespectful” Facebook jokes about a corpse she was assigned to dissect.

A federal district court in Michigan decided in July 2013 that a college student’s writings in response to a class assignment are entitled to zero First Amendment protection — none whatsoever — so that a student may be suspended (not just assigned a poor grade, but actually removed from campus) on the basis of views expressed in a research paper.

That’s why it’s so essential to have a sober conversation about educational institutions’ hair-trigger response to unwelcome speech. Because the federal courts have abandoned their duty to protect vulnerable citizens against overreaching by powerful government institutions, young people must demand better. They must summon the courage of 13-year-old Mary Beth Tinker, who in 1965 defied an unlawful school order to remove her antiwar armband, thus propelling into motion the case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, from which today’s courts are backpedaling so precipitously.

Beating America’s education establishment in front of the U.S. Supreme Court made Mary Beth a believer in the ability of determined dreamers to accomplish improbable things. Fueled by that belief, she and longtime SPLC staff attorney Mike Hiestand successfully raised $50,000 from 225 donors, big and small, to underwrite the “Tinker Tour” that launched Sept. 17 from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

With stops in 19 states and the District of Columbia, the tour has the chance to be a game-changer. An opportunity to actually talk about students expressing themselves without the words “cyberbullying” or “sexting” in the headline. You can join the dialogue at www.tinkertourusa.org, on Twitter at @tinkertour, or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/TinkerTour.