Mary Beth Tinker to high school journalists: It’s your job to speak up on behalf of others

Mary Beth Tinker speaks about free expression in front of her famous black armband, on display at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. / Joe Severino

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Mary Beth Tinker, First Amendment advocate and former plaintiff in a landmark Supreme Court case that still affects students’ speech rights 50 years later, told her story to hundreds of high school journalism students visiting the nation’s capital on Nov. 22 — encouraging them to be caring, and use their free speech rights to talk about important issues.

Long before she was known as a First Amendment hero to students, Tinker was a young girl from Iowa sitting at home watching the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement play out on television.

In a speech to high schoolers and advisers attending the National High School Journalism Convention, Tinker said those images shocked her. Tinker’s father was a Methodist minister, and she was raised to always care for others while acting on the themes of peace and love. 

“It was Christmas time, and Christmas is all about peace and love; and my dad would read to us from the Bible — the story of peace and love and the little baby in the manger — and when we looked on the news, we didn’t see peace and love,” she said. “We saw war, war, war.”

Tinker during her speech to students on Nov. 22 at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park / Joe Severino

As a child, she saw young people on the news marching for civil rights in Birmingham, Alabama as part of the Children’s Crusade. The Civil Rights Movement also introduced her to the use of black armbands as a symbol of mourning and a form of silent protest. Later, she was inspired by the military members who began to speak out against the Vietnam War. 

So a 13-year-old Tinker joined her brother John, friend Chris Eckhardt, and a few other students in wearing black armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam War.

The students were suspended. Soon after, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a First Amendment suit against the school district on their behalf.

Both the district and appeals court ruled against Tinker, her brother and Eckhardt, before the case went before the Supreme Court. The Court reversed the lower courts’ decisions, and today, Tinker v. Des Moines is the cornerstone for basic protections of free expression by students in public schools.

The Tinker case created a standard for student journalists that protects their First Amendment rights as long as the speech does not cause a significant disruption in a school setting.

But in 1988, the Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, that public schools could lawfully censor students for any reason “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

The Hazelwood ruling is now cited in most school districts as a standard for censoring student speech. But New Voices laws have been passed in 14 states, restoring the Tinker standard.

Tinker worked as a nurse for most of her adult life. But she left her medical career because she couldn’t believe how little the world cared about the opinions of young people.

“There are so many ways that young people are disrespected in our society, and the status of young people is not what it should be,” she said.

Student journalists play a critical role in recognizing and amplifying the voices of marginalized students, she said. She also said students lucky enough to have a journalism program must advocate for those who don’t.

“The students that are higher income, that have more white kids in the school; they’re probably going to have journalism,” she said. “They might even have broadcast journalism.”

“Because as you come down the income level, there’s a sliding scale to the free press,” she added. “You don’t have the free press at many, many schools in the United States.”

There are dozens of high schools in the Washington, D.C. area, Tinker said, but only a handful have journalism programs. She said students at Woodrow Wilson High School, who have a well-funded journalism program, cared enough to share some of its resources with another local school, so they could start speaking out.

“…  it’s important for you to cover issues that are going on in other schools, and to open your eyes outside of just your own school, and your own neighborhoods and your own communities,” she said. 

“Caring. It’s at the heart of nursing,” she said, “ … and I want it to be at the heart of your lives as well. Because caring about what’s going on in the world and paying attention, especially as journalists, is so important.”

In 2013 after Tinker left her nursing job, she and SPLC Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand began the “Tinker Tour,” traveling across the country through 2014, visiting schools to speak about First Amendment rights.

Tinker said she learned during her school visits that racism is still at the heart of the issues we need to work on. She spoke about schools with racist graffiti, and nooses and other racist symbols being used. 

Tinker said it is as important for young people to speak up about these issues today as it was in 1964.

“We’re seeing more and more of these kinds of things, and that’s why we need to call it what it is — white nationalism, white supremacy,” she said.

Tinker at the Newseum

The day before this speech, the Student Press Law Center led more than 80 students on a tour of the Supreme Court, and then brought them to the Newseum, where Tinker surprised the students. Tinker’s black armband is on display on the fourth floor of the Newseum.

Tinker asked students about the problems persisting in their schools and encouraged them to cover those issues. She later posed for pictures in front of the armband, which is still glued to a homework assignment Tinker completed after the incident. 

The assignment was on the subject of “what did you do over Christmas break?” Tinker and the other students were suspended on Dec. 16, 1965. Much of her break, she said, was spent dealing with the case. 

At the Newseum, Tinker asks student journalists about the problems they’re facing in schools today / Joe Severino

SPLC reporter Joe Severino can be reached by email at or by calling 202-974-6318. Follow him on Twitter at @jj_severino

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