On the road, a free speech icon gives inspiration to new generation

When John and Mary Beth Tinker won their case before the Supreme Court in 1969, when the justices announced that students do, in fact, have rights, it was a turning point for all students, and especially for student journalists: The declaration that students have the right to wear black armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam War set a precedent that student expression cannot be arbitrarily censored.

“They neither interrupted school activities nor sought to intrude in the school affairs or the lives of others,” Associate Justice Abe Fortas wrote in the Court’s majority opinion. “They caused discussion outside of the classrooms, but no interference with work and no disorder. In the circumstances, our Constitution does not permit officials of the State to deny their form of expression.”

Though they lost in the lower courts, the Supreme Court sided with the students on February 24, 1969. The Tinker house celebrated that night with ice cream and soda pop.

“That was a big thrill, man — ice cream and soda,” Mary Beth Tinker said. “Didn’t get that every day.”

Last fall, she and First Amendment attorney Mike Hiestand took the celebration of that win to a new level. With more than $50,000 in crowd-sourced donations, the pair was able to put in motion the Tinker Tour — a 19-state East Coast bus tour aimed at sharing the importance of free speech and civic education with students. The tour, which will continue this spring on the West Coast, is a special project of the Student Press Law Center.

From September to November, Tinker and Hiestand traveled to 43 cities, stopping at middle schools, high schools, colleges, churches and conventions. They traveled in an RV Hiestand nicknamed “Gabby,” spending nights in campgrounds and Walmart parking lots, and stopping every few days at a motel or the home of a friend. They celebrated Constitution Day in Philadelphia, enjoyed a stop at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. and were welcomed back to the Des Moines schools that suspended the Tinkers.

Tinker and Hiestand are ideal ambassadors, said SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte, describing them as “evangelists of the First Amendment.” The tour offered the chance for a much-needed reframing of issues surrounding student free speech rights, he said.

“We’re just in a very unfortunate time for the rights of students where it’s impossible to have any type of a calm, reasonable discussion about student rights because it always veers off into cyberbullying and sexting,” LoMonte said. “The dialogue in so many states and in the national news media would have you believe that kids are vicious, sex-crazed predators. There are so many better things that students use their voices for, and that’s what Tinker Tour has succeeded in spotlighting.”

Hiestand says he got the idea for the tour in his hot tub and later proposed the idea to Tinker. The time felt right to reach out to the younger generations, he said.

“[Mary Beth and I] felt that this is a particular time in history that just feels different. It seems like there are just so many issues, so many problems, so many things coming to a head that we’ve decided that we can’t ignore anymore,” Hiestand said. “We need everybody’s voice when it comes to bringing about that change, but young people especially.”

That’s because young people are uniquely motivated, Hiestand said.

“Their brains are manufactured for change. They’re creative, they’re imaginative, they’re geared toward taking action,” Hiestand said. “It’s young people that throughout history have always been the ones to effect change, so I think our message to folks, to the young people we talked to, was, we need you.”

From the response Tinker and Hiestand have gotten, it’s clear students are “really, really hungry for support and encouragement,” LoMonte said.

“[Students have] been told so many times that they have no rights and to keep their opinions to themselves that it’s a life-changing experience for an adult to come into their school and support their outspoken engagement,” he said. “For many of these kids, hearing from Mary Beth is the first time that anyone has told them that their opinions have value.”

At Denman Junior High School in McComb, Mississippi, Tinker and Hiestand were slated to talk with one eighth grade class. When other students found out about the lecture, they started a petition so that they could attend the lecture as well. The school’s principal granted their request, announcing his decision over the loudspeaker.

“That was great,” Tinker said. “They used their First Amendment rights to come and hear us.”

And that was just one inspiring instance along the tour route, Tinker said. In Queens, New York, a student presented Tinker with a hand-drawn mural depicting youth speaking out. At the Phoenix Military Academy in Chicago, Ill., the uniformed students “all recited from memory, with the greatest enthusiasm and excitement, the First Amendment,” she said. And in cities all over the east, students shared topic after topic that they wanted to speak out and write about.

“That was really one of the most heartening things about the trip, was to see so many young people that are embracing journalism and excited about it and not discouraged by all the issues,” Tinker said. “They really have a commitment to maintaining an independent media.”

In an email, Tinker said that she was also inspired by the journalism advisers she and Hiestand met throughout the tour “who go above and beyond to keep journalism free and democracy alive,” and was encouraged by many administrators they met as well.

While he was impressed with the students he met along the tour, Hiestand said he wishes there were even more student journalists to tackle today’s problems.

“There are those young journalists out there that just blow you away, but I wish there were more of them because I think we need more of them,” Hiestand said. “I think the problems are so big we need another generation like we had after Watergate, where they saw what journalism could do.”

Back to Des Moines

The welcome in Iowa illustrated a lesson Mary Beth Tinker said she tries to impress upon youth.

“[There are] so many people that we hold up now and we admire, but at the time they were despised or ostracized, like we were ostracized by a lot of people,” Mary Beth Tinker said. While their case was proceeding, the Tinkers were the target of angry letters and even death threats, she said.

“It happened slowly over the years, where the feeling about our situation changed.”

Though she said she still hears from people “who really despise what we did,” the Des Moines Public Schools celebrate the Tinkers’ actions. When the tour stopped at Warren G. Harding Middle School, the siblings were honored with a locker dedication, which DMPS Superintendent Thomas Ahart said he hopes will send “a message that Des Moines has changed as a result of that and continues to honor the lessons learned from that case.”

Dan Johnston, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney who argued the Tinkers’ case, said the district quickly showed support for the ruling, inviting him to give a commencement address to a DMPS high school just one year later.

“School officials really have pretty much embraced it,” Johnston said. “The schools that tried to expel [Mary Beth] 40 years ago welcomed her as sort of an alumni-celebrity.”

John Tinker said he’s noticed big changes in the district over the years as well. While he remembers his fellow students referring to North High School as “the fascist high school,” during his time there, he says it has “changed completely.” The district brought the Tinkers back for an anniversary celebration in the 1990’s and took obvious pride in them then, just as they did this year, he said.

“There’s a lot that’s hopeful in that, in the welcome that we received,” he said.

Ahart said it was “not at all” difficult deciding whether to invite the Tinker Tour to visit DMPS.

“It’s pretty rare, I think, that you get an opportunity to expose students to living history, if you will,” Ahart said. “The Tinkers are legendary in the education world and First Amendment law world. … The ability to expose our students to that was a really unique experience.”

Ahart said he hopes the visit reinforced the idea that students “can be a force for change in the community and they have a responsibility to be a force for change.”

“The Tinkers really were courageous and brave and if our students want to have a similar impact on whatever issue they think we need some movement on, they’re just as capable,” Ahart said he told the students.

The Tinker Tour also made a stop at the U.S. Courthouse in St. Louis, where they spoke to students from University City High School — the school from which Mary Beth Tinker graduated in 1970.

UCHS sophomore and student journalist Christine Politte said she was surprised to find out that Tinker was a UCHS alumna, and was empowered by that fact.

“It makes me think anyone can make history,” Politte said.

First Amendment rockstar

Mary Beth Tinker remains humble about her role in history, noting that for years people have had to fight injustices and indignities. Still, she’s a First Amendment celebrity to journalism lovers, and throughout the tour, she was surrounded by gaggles of students and teachers who wanted to speak with her, or who wanted her autograph or photo.

Mary-Ann Kendall, a junior at Cardozo High School in New York, said Tinker’s story gave her “a push to speak up.”

“I was grateful to finally meet the one who was fighting for peace for the Vietnam War as a kid,” Kendall said. “That really was amazing. And one thing that caught my attention was she wasn’t a bad kid, she was a good kid. A smart, intelligent young lady who just wanted peace for her country.”

About two weeks after the Tinker Tour’s visit, students at Cardozo protested budget cuts that were going to result in the cancellation of some classes. Kendall said her participation was inspired by the tour, and though their protest didn’t change the situation, she was glad to have stood up for what she believed.

Claire Chell, an eighth grader in Des Moines, said she was also inspired by the Tinkers’ story and is now on the look-out for ways to help or change her community.

“Hearing that story made me feel a lot more independent and that I can do whatever I put my mind to,” Chell said.

Mary Beth Tinker said she was raised to use her gifts, experiences and circumstances for positive change, and that that’s what she is trying to do today.

“At some point, I decided if I can use that experience as an example for kids, or myself as a role model for speaking up about the things that you care about and trying to have your voice heard, then that’s what I should do,” she said. “I try to make the most of that role in such a way that will help kids use their voices effectively and for a better world. Not for more hate, not for more division. A better world of more understanding and good will and equality.”

Though the Tinker Tour is on a break at present, Mary Beth Tinker is still speaking at schools until the West Coast phase of the tour begins in March.

While only the first phase is done, LoMonte said the tour has already been successful.

“There’s no question that the Tinker Tour has opened the eyes of a lot of young people to what’s possible,” LoMonte said, “and if it’s done that, then it’s a success.”

Dave Scott, who coordinates a civics education program for the Northport-East Northport Schools District in New York, said he is grateful to Hiestand and Mary Beth Tinker for “going directly to kids and telling that story and really inspiring them to learn about their rights and responsibilities” and he hopes the tour will have an affect on national education policy.

“My prayer is that this really does facilitate some awareness from the people that are making educational policy right now, that revitalizing civic education in this country must become a priority,” Scott said.

Seeing the effect that the Tinker Tour had on the eighth graders in his district, and hearing from parents who said their students came home talking about what they learned makes Scott optimistic about the tour and its mission.

“I could imagine that thousands of those conversations happened over dinner tables across the U.S.,” Scott said. “It’s going to take a lot, but you just gotta do it one kid at a time. Ideally, we’d have Mike and Mary Beth out on the road every day.”

By Sara Tirrito, SPLC staff writer.