Rise Up, Be Heard

Wearing a black armband to school more than 50 years ago thrust Iowa teen Mary Beth Tinker into the spotlight. She’s using it to encourage young people to step up and speak out—with civility and respect.

Fort Collins, Colo.—Some 1,750 teen journalists and their advisers fill Colorado State University’s Grand Ballroom and overflow into another room. Mary Beth Tinker, wearing her Thurgood Marshall pin—a gift from the trailblazing Supreme Court Justice’s widow—perches in the front row, ready to kick off the Colorado Student Media Association’s annual J-Day. 

“This is the opposite of what my natural personality is,” she confides. 

Tinker inhales, her hands rising in front of her chest. “Channel that original medicine,” she murmurs. It’s a reference to a Native American belief that everyone is born with unique gifts they’re called upon to share to help heal the world. 

Despite Tinker’s extensive public speaking experience, she’s nervous. “It’s OK, though. That’s what I tell the kids,” she says. “Step up.” 

A moment later, Tinker steps onstage to a standing ovation. As she shares her story, highlights recent victories for student journalists, and urges the young people to speak out about what’s important to them, you’d never guess she still considers herself “kind of shy,” not too far removed from the east-side Des Moines girl who made history all those years ago.

Landmark Ruling

Feb. 24 marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The case involved Mary Beth, her older brother John, and Chris Eckhardt, who were suspended from school after wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. In a 7-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the young Iowans, saying students and teachers don’t forfeit their free-speech rights “at the schoolhouse gate.”

The Tinker siblings will return to Des Moines in February to celebrate the ruling’s golden anniversary (see details, page 123). Eckhardt died in 2012.

Despite some setbacks, the ruling remains a high-water mark for student rights, says Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), the country’s pre-eminent student free-speech organization. “As an attorney, the Tinker case is kind of where you start and stop in terms of student rights,” Hiestand says.

The country is seeing a resurgence in teenagers getting involved in politics and wanting to exercise their First Amendment rights, says Kathleen Richardson, a professor and dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Drake University, which will host an event with the Tinkers. “In this environment, the legacy of Tinker is more relevant than it has been in a long time,” she says.

Mary Beth Tinker flashes the peace sign with a Colorado student. Today’s students “definitely are on the move. They’re standing up for their interests,” Tinker says. Photographer: Gregory Luft

“Just Like Tinker …”

Three days after 14 students and three staff members were shot to death at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, last Valentine’s Day, survivor and activist Emma Gonzalez invoked Tinker at a rally in Fort Lauderdale. “We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks,” she said. “… Just like Tinker v. Des Moines, we are going to change the law.”

Mary Beth Tinker grew up in the civil rights and peace movements. When her mother was a girl, she was something of a Southern Belle, who enjoyed dates, parties and dances, Tinker says. But when World War II ended, and she learned about the Holocaust and concentration camps, everything changed. “She said she had fiddled while Rome burned, and she was never going to do that again,” Tinker recalls. “It’s the idea of being ‘woke’ today—paying attention.”

Tinker says working as a pediatric trauma nurse eased some of her shyness and fueled her interest in youth rights. 

With master’s degrees in both public health and nursing, she treated children and teens who’d been shot or were victims of other violence. Some couldn’t breathe because pollution triggered their asthma. Others were burned or suffered from lead exposure because they lived in substandard housing.

“It just came home to me so often that kids are paying the price for policies they had absolutely no say in,” she says. “I wanted to encourage them to advocate for their own interests. When they stand up for themselves, it can be very powerful.”

Through the years Tinker occasionally had spoken to groups about her case—and returned to Des Moines for armband-case anniversaries. But in the fall of 2013, she quit nursing and partnered with the SPLC to launch the Tinker Tour—“empowering youth voices through First Amendment activism.” Based in Washington, D.C., the nonpartisan, nonprofit SPLC helps about 2,000 student journalists, advisers and others each year, including providing free legal advice and representation. 

Tinker and Hiestand, the SPLC lawyer, hit the road in a First Amendment-touting RV with a glow-in-the-dark peace sign. The book “101 Changemakers: Rebels and Radicals Who Changed U.S. History” had been published not too long before, Hiestand says. It profiles notable Americans such as Malcolm X, Gloria Steinem, Harriet Tubman, Mark Twain—and Mary Beth Tinker.

“She genuinely is the nicest rebel and radical you’ll ever meet,” Hiestand says. “She is looking to change the world but she’s going to do it politely—and with love.”

The pair logged nearly 25,000 miles during the 2013-14 school year, traveling through 41 states and two foreign countries. After the tour ended, Tinker continued traveling and speaking. In 2018 she made several appearances in Washington, D.C., where she lives, plus dozens of other cities and towns across the country. 

She’s seen dramatic changes in young people since she started. “Students have definitely been galvanized,” Tinker says. “Between Black Lives Matter and DACA students and the environment and, now, anti-gun-violence campaigns, students definitely are on the move. They’re standing up for their interests.”

Tinker often speaks to adults who work with young people. “I like to remind administrators that everything goes better for everyone when students have a voice,” she says. “You can almost feel it when you walk into a school.”

Upon landing in Denver en route to Fort Collins, Tinker buys a copy of The Denver Post and then fills a glass bottle at the drinking fountain. Petite, still rocking bangs and soft-spoken when not onstage, Tinker agrees to dinner but wants to avoid fancy places. She’s mostly vegetarian and brings her own glass jar for leftovers. When she discovers a couple of small holes in her cardigan (bought at a consignment shop), she wonders if she’ll be able to find the right color of thread to darn them. 

A few days later, in Fort Collins, Tinker tells J-Day participants that there’s renewed interest in student journalism across the country. Young people have always led movements that changed society for the better, Tinker tells them. “We’re not going to settle for the way things are now, with so much injustice and inequality.”

Shy and Scared

She explains how the brave young people in the civil rights movement inspired her to wear the armband even though she was painfully shy and scared. When her math teacher sent her to the office, she spoke with a vice principal. “He said, ‘Mary Beth, you have to take off that armband. That’s against the rules.’ ” Tinker pauses for dramatic effect. “In a great stand of courage and conviction, I said, ‘OK.’ ”

Even though she took off the armband, she was sent home later that day. “Always keep your suspension notice,” Tinker says, holding the paper high. “You can have the tiniest bit of courage, and you can still stand up.”

For Hiestand, this is the most important part of Tinker’s story. “She freely admits she took the armband off. For me, it’s so powerful to recognize that you don’t have to get in a person’s face,” he says. “It helps people understand ‘I can use the little bit of courage I have’ and you never know how that ripples out.”

In an interview later, Tinker says she doesn’t know why she was suspended after removing the armband. “History’s made by the small things we do and also little flukes,” she says. “That was certainly one of them.”

Onstage, she acknowledges that there is much in the world to feel sad about. “Never get out of touch with your feelings because that’s one of your strengths as young people,” she says. “We took our grief and turned it into action. When you do that, it feels so good.”

The students and teachers give her another standing ovation. Then, for the next 40 minutes, Tinker signs autographs and poses for pictures. “First Amendment—woo-hoo!” she says instead of “cheese.”

Tinker looks each in the eye. She asks their name and what issues they’re concerned about. She shakes their hand and asks if they’ll sign her notebook. When Tinker heard about the Parkland shooting, she went through her notebooks. Sure enough, she’d visited Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the fall of 2013, on the first leg of the Tinker Tour. After the shooting, Tinker reached out to the school’s award-winning journalism adviser.

Wide-Ranging Impact

Brendan O’Keeffe, a high school senior, waits with friends to give Tinker a thank-you card for visiting their school a couple of days earlier. “She may not necessarily be a household name,” he says, “but the impact of her actions has affected everyone.”

When the crowd finally clears, Tinker starts down the hall. She’s barely taken a step when a college student approaches. “I remember hearing about you in my history classes. To see you. …” Her voice trails off. “I’m really trying to make a difference in the world,” she says.

The reaction was the same on the Tinker Tour, Hiestand says. “Mary Beth is very good at what she does. She realizes this is not about her personally, but she’s had to come to terms with understanding what she represents,” he says.

“She is tireless. She burns the candle at both ends sometimes,” he adds. “I think she feels she’s been given this mantle, and she has a responsibility to use it.”

Mary Beth Tinker

Meet the Tinkers

Siblings Mary Beth and John Tinker will return to Des Moines in February to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in their lawsuit against the Des Moines schools.
They’ll visit classes in Des Moines schools Feb. 18-21 and college campuses Feb. 25-28. On Feb. 22 at the State Historical Building, they’ll speak at a program for students from around the state. Free events open to the public include the following:

Press Conference/Community Reception

John Tinker

Feb. 24

2 p.m. press conference, followed by a 3 p.m. reception, where people can meet the Tinkers.

Harding Middle School
203 E. Euclid Ave.

50th Anniversary Supreme Court Victory for Students’ First Amendment Rights: Mary Beth and John Tinker

Feb. 25, 7 p.m.

Great Hall, Memorial Union
Iowa State University, Ames 

Moderated by Mark Stringer, ACLU of Iowa director. 

Mary Beth and John Tinker Discuss Free Speech on College Campuses

Feb. 27, 7 p.m.

Cowles Library, Drake University

Sponsored by the Drake University School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the Drake Law School’s Constitutional Law Center and Cowles Library.

Beyond the Schoolhouse Gate

Des Moines’ “armband kids” protested the Vietnam War—and created a First Amendment legacy.

Writer: Kellye Carter Crocker

On Thursday, Dec. 16, 1965, Mary Beth Tinker walked the few blocks to Harding Junior High like it was any other day. But under her winter coat, the 13-year-old wore a strip of black cloth safety-pinned to her sweater sleeve. 

She wore the armband to mourn those who’d died in the Vietnam War—on both sides—and to support a proposed Christmas Eve truce.

The day before, though, a front-page story in The Des Moines Register had announced a new rule—no armbands in school. A shy girl who made good grades, Mary Beth was no rule-breaker. But she was distraught about the war. 

Boys from her east-side neighborhood and around the United States had been drafted. Mary Beth, her four brothers and sisters, and their parents, Leonard and Lorena Jeanne Tinker, gathered around their black-and-white TV as Walter Cronkite grimly reported the daily war casualties.

Almost three weeks earlier, some 20,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., to protest the war. John Tinker and Chris Eckhardt, both 15, attended with their mothers.

As a follow-up, local peace activists met Dec. 11 at William and Margaret Eckhardt’s house to talk about what else they might do. Students decided to fast on Dec. 16 and wear black armbands starting that day and through the holidays if the United States didn’t adopt the truce.

Roosevelt High School sophomore Ross Peterson wrote a short announcement about the plan for his school newspaper, but the principal and Raymond Peterson, the district’s director of secondary education (and no relation to Ross), yanked it before it was published.

Tipped off to the upcoming protest, Raymond Peterson met with Des Moines’ five high school principals on Tuesday, Dec. 14, and they agreed to ban armbands. The Register quoted Peterson saying that the armbands would create a “disturbing situation” and that “schools are no place for demonstrations.” 

As a result, many teens ditched their plans to wear armbands. But a few, including Chris, Mary Beth and John, weren’t dissuaded. All three had grown up in the civil rights and peace movements. 

Leonard Tinker, a Methodist minister, had lost two jobs for integration efforts. In 1962, he began working as a peace educator for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization dedicated to peace and social justice. 

Even so, he encouraged Mary Beth to obey the school armband rule. “He was no rabble-rouser,” she says. “He believed in discipline and authority and the necessity of having rules and following them.” 

At the same time, he’d raised his children to “speak up about what you think is important from a moral point of view,” she says, and after she convinced him that she considered wearing the armband an ethical issue, he supported her.

For inspiration and strength, Mary Beth looked to the thousands of African-American children and teenagers who’d been attacked by police as they peacefully marched for equal rights in Birmingham, Alabama, in May 1963—and to those who’d died in the movement. No matter what happened when she arrived at Harding, she reminded herself that, as a white girl, her life wasn’t in danger for breaking a school rule. 

Black Armbands for Christmas

At first, no one seemed to notice Mary Beth’s armband. Eventually, a few students suggested she take it off so she didn’t get in trouble. At lunch, a few boys joked that they wanted black armbands for Christmas.

Walking into math was a different story. “I loved math and was always competing to get the best scores,” Mary Beth says. But the day before, her math teacher had spent the entire class talking about the newspaper article about the armbands. Anyone wearing one in his class would be kicked out, he warned.

Meanwhile, across town at Roosevelt, a football player tried to rip the armband off Chris Eckhardt’s jacket before school, according to the 1997 book “The Struggle for Student Rights: Tinker v. Des Moines and the 1960s” by John W. Johnson, a University of Northern Iowa professor emeritus in history. Chris headed directly to the office and turned himself in. He was sent home, as were two other armband-wearing Roosevelt students, Bruce Clark and Christine Singer.

Meanwhile, Mary Beth was surprised to learn that John hadn’t worn an armband that day after all. When she’d left for school, he’d been delivering newspapers. John says his mind was on a workshop some of the students had attended the previous summer. They’d learned that an important part of nonviolent protest was making sure the entire group agreed about how they’d respond, he says.
“I was thinking we [hadn’t] had a group meeting since the ban,” he says. “I wanted a meeting of the students so we could unify how we were going to deal with it.”

‘Leave Him Alone’

The next day, Friday, Dec. 17, John entered North High School, where he was a sophomore, with an armband in his pocket. Because his sister and three other students had been suspended the day before, he says, “I didn’t feel comfortable wearing it on my arm on the way to school.”

Later that morning, John slipped into the boys’ restroom and struggled to pin it on himself. Another boy came in and offered to help. “By the time I wore it,” John says, “I was convinced it was the right thing to do.”

Still, wearing the armband “was sort of embarrassing. I didn’t want to stick out,” he says. He felt “conspicuous” at lunch, where he sat with friends. 

Other boys called him a coward and made “ugly comments,” he says. He can’t remember everything they said, “but I remember the attitude,” John says. “It’s an uninformed kind of a bully attitude.” 

A large football player, Steve Klein, approached. “He said, ‘John has a right to his opinion. Leave him alone,’ ” John says.

When John was sent to the office, Principal Donald Wetter suggested that he was, perhaps, misinformed. Maybe John had been “talking to the wrong people, communists?” he suggested, or perhaps he didn’t understand that citizens needed to support their country during a war? “But he wasn’t belittling me,” John says. “He was respectful.”

Finally, Wetter told John he was going to ask him to remove his armband, adding, “But I don’t think you’re going to take it off, are you?” 

“In saying that, he gave me a little boost of confidence. He really was saying he respected me and that I was acting out of conscience,” John says. “In a narrative like this, there’s a tendency to see everyone as a hero or a villain. He was a really decent person, and he was doing what he thought he should be doing, and he was treating me that way, too. I think the principals made the wrong decision, but I don’t think they’re bad people.”

The youngest Tinkers—Hope, a fifth-grader at Madison, and Paul, a second-grader at Cattell— also wore armbands. 

The ban didn’t apply to elementary schools, though, and their teachers took advantage of the “teaching moment.” About a dozen young people are believed to have worn armbands to school, John says, and five were sent home.

School Board Debate

Some 200 people—20 times the usual number—packed the Dec. 21 Des Moines school board meeting. The mood was electric as adults and students spoke. The Roosevelt student council president supported the ban, saying armbands would be “detrimental to education,” according to Johnson.

But Clark, one of the Roosevelt students who’d been suspended, pointed out that students had been encouraged to wear black armbands in the past—in 1963 to mourn the deaths of four African-American girls who died in a Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing and even for “the death of school spirit”—with no apparent disruption.

A World War II veteran said schools should punish rule-breakers swiftly and sternly, like the military. Craig Sawyer, a Drake University law professor who also was affiliated with the Iowa Civil Liberties Union (now the ACLU of Iowa), said students had a First Amendment right to wear the armbands.

After listening to the public, the board debated the issue for two hours, then voted to postpone a decision on the armband rule until its next meeting. 

Sawyer tried to obtain an immediate injunction to lift the ban but a judge declined to act, saying there was only one day of school left before winter break. A couple of days later, The New York Times ran a long story about the Des Moines controversy.

The Tinker case continues to send ripples through student groups as well as the legal community. It was the centerpiece of this 1997 book by a history professor at the University of Northern Iowa. And it has inspired student activists seeking legislation in the wake of recent school shootings.

Back (in Black) to School

When school resumed Jan. 3, 1966, Clark and Singer returned to class without armbands. Mary Beth, John and Chris remained at home, hoping the board would change the policy at its meeting that night. 

But, facing another overflowing, agitated crowd, the board voted 5-2 to affirm the rule and uphold the student suspensions. Attorney Arthur Davis, who would later become mayor of Des Moines and lead the Iowa Democratic Party, and the Rev. L. Robert Keck, a Methodist minister, voted against the ban.

After missing more than a week of school, Mary Beth, John and Chris returned the next day. They left their armbands at home but wore black. For them, the conflict wasn’t resolved.

William Kunstler, a lawyer who’d worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and would go on to represent the Chicago Seven Vietnam war protesters, called the Tinkers and offered to take the case pro bono, John says. But his parents asked around and decided Kunstler was “too radical.”

They decided to work with the ICLU, which already was involved. Dan Johnston, who’d graduated from Drake University’s Law School only two years earlier, was said to possess better negotiation and organization skills than Sawyer, who’d irritated many people at the first school board meeting on the issue.

ICLU President Louise Noun and her brother, Joseph Rosenfield, agreed to pay Johnston’s attorney fees, which Noun later estimated were only a few hundred dollars. In March 1966, Johnston sued the Des Moines school district on behalf of John Tinker, Mary Beth Tinker and Chris Eckhardt as well as their fathers, since minors can’t sue. 

The issue continued to divide Des Moines. A “post-World War II attitude ” prevailed, emphasizing authority and conformity, John says. The “Red Scare” colored everything, including painful divisions over the escalating war and changing ideas about young people. Many adults believed “children should be seen and not heard” and “spare the rod, spoil the child,” John says. 

The Tinker and Eckhardt families received tremendous support from the ICLU, the peace community and others, John says. But they also were victims of ongoing harassment, including anonymous hate mail. 

Vandalism and Death Threats

They were called traitors, pinkos, commies and worse. Mary Beth says her mother had the best line: “We’re not communists. We’re Methodists.”

Someone splashed red paint on the Tinkers’ house—or on the street in front of it (Mary Beth’s and John’s memories differ)—and a brick smashed their Volkswagen windshield. 

Although it was unnerving, “we just kind of ignored it,” Mary Beth says. “My parents were so strong and calm.”

The family also received death threats. Russ LaVine, who hosted a local, late-night AM radio talk show and owned a gun shop, offered to lend a gun to anyone who’d shoot Leonard Tinker, John says. A man called to say their house was going to be bombed.

“It was very confusing,” Mary Beth says, “because we were speaking up for peace at Christmas.”

On Trial

The trial, held in July 1966 in Des Moines, pitted the 28-year-old Johnston against 70-year-old Allan Herrick, the school district’s lawyer. John says he didn’t notice the age and experience gap, but the difference in their attitudes was striking.

“Allan Herrick just represented to me the authority I was a rebel against,” John says. “I was a liberal in the classic sense. I believed in liberating the spirit of the individual, and Allan Herrick represented the opposite of that to me.”

John, wearing a white shirt and tie, was called first to testify. “The courtroom was full of supporters,” he says. “There were students who were looking up to me, and I tried to rise to that role.”

Herrick had a gravelly voice, John recalls, and tried “to corral me to say what he wanted me to say.” The school district tried to prove that the Tinker and Eckhardt parents had foisted the protest on their children. “To portray my dad as a firebrand, flamethrower … it was way, way off, inaccurate and dishonest,” John says.

“Most of what I remember of Dan Johnston was how kind and warm he was with us kids,” Mary Beth says. “It was really important because we were being attacked and threatened. He was so reassuring.”

A Loss in Court

On Sept. 1, 1966, U.S. District Judge Roy Stephenson sided with the school district. The schools’ interest in maintaining order overruled the students’ right to free expression, he said. 

In April 1967, the Tinker family flew to St. Louis to watch the proceedings at the U.S. Court of Appeals, 8th Circuit. A three-judge panel, however, announced it couldn’t reach a decision and ordered a rehearing before the full, eight-member court. 

In November 1967—nearly two years after they’d worn the armbands—the appeals court split 4-4. In a tie, the lower court decision prevails. The school district had won again.

Mary Beth wasn’t surprised. She couldn’t imagine that “some big, important judge” would say it was OK for kids to break a school rule. “I always thought we would lose,” she says.

John, however, expected to win—both times. “The idea that I would be kicked out of school simply for letting people know what my opinion was, that was completely anathema to American idealism,” he says. “It was very disappointing. I thought they got it wrong. But there was a lot else wrong in the world. At one point, the civil rights movement seemed so hopeless to me, and the war in Vietnam was utterly evil. For us to lose the case was really small potatoes.”

U.S. Supreme Court Hearing

The U.S. Supreme Court heard the Tinker case on Nov. 12, 1968. “I barely remember being there,” Mary Beth says.

“It was so stressful. Maybe that’s why I don’t remember some of it?”

Her father had recently started a new job with the American Friends Service Committee in St. Louis, and Mary Beth was struggling to adjust to a new high school and living in a big city. Two missed flights prevented John, a University of Iowa student by then, from attending. He jokes that maybe it was for the best. With his “little, wispy beard” and long hair, he says, “maybe if they would’ve seen that hippie in the front row, I don’t know. …” He laughs.

On Monday, Feb. 24, 1969, the Supreme Court ruled in the students’ favor. At home, the Tinkers celebrated with ice cream and soda pop, Mary Beth says.

“Boy, that didn’t happen every day. That was my first clue that this was a big deal,” she says. “I didn’t get for a long time what a big deal this was.”

Although the decision was national news, no one mentioned it at school the next day, not even her
teachers, Mary Beth says. Newsweek photographed her in chemistry class.

“It was a very strange experience, and it has been ever since then,” she says. “My challenge has always been—now what? What do you do with this?” 

Her blue eyes are searching. “At some point,” she says, “I had to step up to the challenge.”

Key Players

Here’s a look at those involved with the Tinker case.

Mary Beth Tinker, 66, is a retired pediatric trauma nurse who travels the country as a youth-rights advocate. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her wife. Tinker’s adult son and his wife live nearby. Tinker’s website is TinkerTourUSA.org.

John Tinker, 68, operates a low-power community radio station from his home in Fayette, Missouri (population almost 3,000), giving voice to a variety of opinions. He and his wife have a 14-year-old son, and Tinker also has an 18-year-old daughter. He maintains a website at schema-root.org.

Chris Eckhardt died of cancer in 2012 at age 62. He lived in Clearwater, Florida, with his partner, and was a social worker for many years. In 2001 he was charged with exploitation of the elderly and served more than four years in prison after representing himself in court, according to ABC News.

Dan Johnston, the Iowa Civil Liberties Union attorney who argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, died in 2016 of a rare skin cancer at age 78. He spent two years in the Iowa Legislature and eight years as Polk County attorney. 

In 2014, Johnston received the ACLU of Iowa’s Louise Noun Award for significant contributions to civil rights in Iowa.

Louise Noun was president of the ICLU from 1964 to 1972 and, with her brother, financed the Tinker case. A pioneering feminist, philanthropist, author, art collector and activist, she was divorced and had a daughter and grandson. Suffering from chronic pain, Noun killed herself in 2002 at age 94—and sent a letter to The Des Moines Register advocating for assisted suicide.

The Tinker Standard

The Des Moines case created an enduring benchmark.

Teenagers are people. It seems glaringly obvious—what else would they be?—but 50 years ago, the idea was revolutionary. 

In its 1969 Tinker decision, the U.S. 

Supreme Court established for the first time that students are “persons” under the Constitution and, therefore, entitled to the same rights as adults. “That is the foundation of First Amendment rights for students,” says Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) in Washington, D.C.

“It sort of rocked the world of schools,” says Mary Beth Tinker, one of three student plaintiffs. “It’s not just the principal or the administration who gets to decide what’s expressed in school.”

The First Amendment guarantees five freedoms—of religion, speech, the press, peaceful assembly and to petition the government with grievances. When Des Moines school officials hastily created a rule prohibiting black armbands—and suspended students who wore them to protest the Vietnam War—they violated students’ First Amendment rights because the armbands were a form of symbolic speech, the court said.

However, the landmark decision also recognized that schools need to maintain order. Therefore, officials can limit student speech if it substantially disrupts the educational environment or violates others’ rights. This has come to be called the Tinker standard.

Since then, the court has nipped at Tinker for specific circumstances—student speech that includes sexual innuendo and advocates illicit drug use, for example. The most notable blow to student First Amendment rights, however, was 1988’s Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. 

That case involved a St. Louis high school principal who pulled two stories from the school newspaper before publication. In ruling against the student journalists, the Supreme Court said that school newspapers are a supervised learning experience and that as long as school officials’ decisions are related to legitimate educational concerns, they can exercise “editorial control.” 

Shortly after the Hazelwood decision, the Iowa Legislature passed the “Iowa Student Free Expression Law,” essentially offering pre-Hazelwood protection to students as long as they don’t publish anything obscene, libelous or slanderous or that encourages others to break the law. Fourteen states have passed such protections, Hiestand says, and others are working on it.

Even so, in today’s politically charged climate, Hiestand says Tinker “is being seriously threatened.” Justice Clarence Thomas has said Tinker should be overturned.

John Tinker, Mary Beth’s brother and another plaintiff in the case, disagrees that the standard is at risk. “I think the legal precedent is so established at this point that there’s not much that could hurt it,” he says. “Our case is used by people all over the political spectrum.” 

John Tinker says he is concerned, though, about the current climate of fear. When that happens, he says, “there is a tendency to clamp down on nonconformity and get people in step with the program, so to speak.”

On the other hand, technology is creating new opportunities for student expression. The Tinkers had limited options for expressing themselves in 1965, Hiestand says. These days, if a principal pulls a controversial article from the student paper, networks of student journalists across the country will post the story to their websites.

“School officials … can say no now,” he says, “but that’s not the end of the story.”

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