Mary Beth Tinker speaks at Rutgers
Mary Beth Tinker of the Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District Supreme Court case spoke on Thursday at the “Pizza and Politics: A Student’s Right to Free Speech” event. The Rutgers Center for Youth Political Participation (CYPP) at the Eagleton Institute of Politics hosted the event.
Dr. Elizabeth Matto, associate research professor at the Eagleton Institute and the director of the CYPP, said the event was representative of the goal of the “Talking Politics: Disagreeing without Being Disagreeable” Byrne Course at Eagleton Institute of Politics, which is to teach students how to form opinions and articulate them while engaging in productive dialogue with others who may disagree with you.
Tinker said she grew up in a family that was very social justice oriented. Her father, a Methodist church preacher, taught his children that faith should be followed by action and that if they see injustice in the world, they should not stay silent.
In 1965, during the Vietnam War, Tinker said she and less than 10 of her peers decided to wear black armbands to school to show support for peace, a move inspired by the Birmingham Alabama Children’s Campaign.
“My first experience with black armbands was in 1963 when Martin Luther King (Jr.) was in jail and 2,000 kids came out and started marching and protesting segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, and they were attacked with German Shepherd dogs and water hoses,” Tinker said. “They attacked these little children and these images (of the attack) went viral all over the world. The great democracy, the land of the free, the home of the brave was attacking its little children.”
Following the segregation march, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) bombed a church killing four young girls who had been attending that day. Tinker said James Baldwin, a Black activist, encouraged people all over the country to wear black armbands in solidarity and support for the civil rights movement. Social activism cases also set the precedent for free speech in schools, Tinker said.
“Even the Tinker ruling in 1969 cites a case that had to do with Black kids in Mississippi who protested the KKK murders of three civil rights workers. When (James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner) were murdered in 1964, high school students wore buttons to school that said, ‘one man, one vote.’ When the kids in Mississippi protested by wearing their buttons to school, they were suspended,” Tinker said. “The case ended up working its way through the courts and they ended up winning that case in 1966. That case that they won, why did they win? Because the courts said that they had not substantially disrupted school and that remains the standard in public school today, and that is cited in the Tinker ruling.”
Tinker said the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was instrumental in helping the students fight their case and argued in court that the students were not hurting anyone. Under Tinker v. Des Moines, the court ruled that students are people covered by the Constitution and therefore protected by the First Amendment.
“I was really surprised when I was a junior in high school and on Feb. 24, 1969, the court ruled 7-2, which was a very strong ruling, and it was a ruling about what education should be in democracy,” Tinker said. “Yes, there will be controversy. If you don’t have controversy, you’re not going to have education and you certainly won’t have democracy. But we have to be willing to talk to each other about things that we don’t agree with.”
Tinker said she went on to become a nurse practitioner, working in trauma care for children and teenagers, but left approximately 10 years ago after seeing the difficult things children endure based on societal conditions. She said she now works to inspire youth to recognize and fight for their rights.
“I got sick and tired of taking care of kids who were shot, kids who had asthma because some big polluter is getting away with wrecking the air quality, children who are taking water to drink and it was poisoned with lead — and those would be my patients,” Tinker said. “I started putting it all together, thinking maybe I could tell these kids about that case and my experience of speaking up, and then I could encourage them to speak up because young people are so powerful when they advocate for themselves.”
During the event, students asked questions regarding drawing the line between hate speech and free speech, as well as how to voice your opinion, even when it might be the minority opinion.
“At first, I thought you should shut down hateful speech, like when I was really young, people would call me and be like ‘what do you think, should this kid should be allowed to wear a swastika on his necklace?’ and I was like ‘No,’” Tinker said. “But then I got more sophisticated, and I got more involved with what the ACLU does, and now I’m sort of going back a little bit. I’m thinking, maybe there should be more limits to hate speech. The way we’ve made progress in racial justice is certainly requiring a thriving, healthy First Amendment.”
Sean Tonra, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year, said Rutgers students should be involved in politics because they can share their opinions, like Tinker did, in order to solve different issues.
“Rutgers is in a special place due to our diversity, not only when it comes to backgrounds and ethnicities, but also when it comes to opinions,” Tonra said. “I think Rutgers can be a true example to the world of how well we can mix together different opinions and, not only hear out others, but also challenge each other.”
Nashia Basit, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, said it is important for young people to have their voices heard and hopes the recent rise in youth activism will continue.
“I think that for the longest time, it was thought that politics was something only certain individuals could partake in, but hearing stories like Tinker’s where she was just a mere 13 year old, growing up in her city, and she managed to win a landmark Supreme Court case really shows us the power of the youth and youth activism especially,” Basit said. “We live in a climate where so many things are being challenged. There’s so many social justice issues out there, and it’s really time that individuals, especially young people, are going out there and protesting for their rights and getting their voices heard because that’s how we make change in our country.”
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