Mary Beth Tinker: It's Not A Good Time For Student Free Speech In Our Country

May 19, 2016

Mary Beth Tinker, one of the plaintiffs in the landmark case Tinker v. Des Moines, holds up a replica armband that she and her brother wore to school to protest the Vietnam War. She was suspended from school for the action, which led to the Supreme Court case that protected student free speech.
Credit Julia Ritchey

More than 45 years after the Supreme Court established First Amendment protections for students, free speech remains a hot-button issue across high school and college campuses — from controversial prom dress codes to widely publicized protests at the University of Missouri this year. Reno Public Radio's Julia Ritchey sat down with the plaintiff in that landmark case on student rights in the 21st century. 

"When we were suspended for wearing the black armbands, the American Civil Liberties Union decided to come help us," said Tinker. "It went to court, and we lost at the district and appeals level, and then at the Supreme Court, amazingly enough, in 1969, the Supreme Court ruled by 7-2 this landmark decision... that neither teachers or students leave their rights at the school house gates."

Tinker, who was a junior in high school at the time, had no idea how consequential the ruling would be. She went on to work as a trauma nurse and began lecturing at schools across the country about free speech. 

This week, Tinker visited three Reno-area schools, including Wooster and Reno High School.  

"I started thinking maybe if I told kids this story and many other  stories about kids through history who have stood up and spoken up and used their First Amendment rights in ways that are positive, productive, that help us... Sometimes students have something to teachers and adults as well," she said. 

After learning about the case in their government course, high schoolers Sydney Criddle, Joey Dailey, Kathia Benitez, and Garrett Recob got a chance to meet Tinker and join her for the interview. 

"I learned that we have a lot more  as people that we can do with our rights, rather than just sit back and watch things happen," said Criddle, a senior. "We can actually stand up and do what we think is right, whether or not people agree with us."

Tinker says it's not a good time for student free speech in the U.S., but that hasn't stopped students from speaking up about the issues that affect them.

"Adult allies are out there helping kids to use their rights and speak up," she said.

Mary Beth Tinker with Reno-area high schoolers (from left): Sydney Criddle, Kathia Benitez, Joey Dailey and Garrett Recob
Credit Julia Ritchey