Mary Beth Tinker speaks about student rights

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Photos by Hailey Stolze

She was only 13-years-old when she prompted a decision that gained permanent First Amendment rights for public school students. After Mary Beth Tinker questioned her school board’s decision to suspend students wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War in 1969, Justice Abe Fortas decided that students do not “shed their constitutional rights…at the schoolhouse gate.”

Tinker visited Bellevue East on April 16 to discuss First Amendment rights of students. All journalism advisers in the metro were invited to take students.

Growing up in Iowa, Tinker said her family was always searching for justice. Her mother and father, a Methodist minister, urged civilians to focus on the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

After her father tried to stand up for black children’s rights to swim at a public pool, he lost his job as a minister. The family then moved to Des Moines, where the true battle for justice began.

Once seeing photos of children marching out of Birmingham on TV while being attacked by german shepherds, Tinker and her siblings were compelled to make a change.

“Yeah, we said ‘all the people,’ but did it cover all the people? No,” Tinker said.

Tinker recognizes that the constitution didn’t include women, blacks and many other minority groups.

The Tinker siblings decided to protest the Vietnam War through wearing black armbands. Tinker and her older brother John were both suspended. The argument went all the way to the Supreme Court, where Tinker won. The case, known as Tinker vs. Des Moines, is now taught to student journalists, teachers, nurses and beyond to create a better understanding of students’ rights.

“I liked going and hearing an authentic view from a person who was actually there at that point in history,” sophomore Rosemary Keenan said.

At the assembly, Tinker urged students to help the United States go forward with “democratic ideals” of equality and justice.

“Sometimes as students, we feel like we can’t do anything until we’re older. So I think it’s great for people to realize that they have power, even as high school students, even as middle school students and even as elementary school students,” junior Renee Pineda said.

Tinker stressed the importance of teenagers’ roles on change. She acknowledged that through imagination and creativity, adolescents can have the biggest impact on making a difference.

“Young people are the secret weapon,” Tinker said. “Your brains give you a tendency to want to take action.”

Freshman Sierra Karst is taking advantage of this.

“I’m actually considering trying to reform education so that there’s less stress on homework and testing and more on actual learning,” Karst said. “First I’m going to have to research a lot and get some interviews done online maybe. And eventually I may write a petition or bill.”

After graduating from University City High School in 1970, Tinker became a nurse practitioner. She’s continued supporting adolescents’ rights throughout her lifetime, through touring the United States and giving speeches. What students take away from those experiences are the most important part.

“I learned that it’s really important to stand up for what you believe in and even though you think you’re not really making a difference, it can make a big difference,” sophomore Emily Summers said.

Hailey Stolze
Editor in Chief