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Penn Law Journal of Constitutional Law holds annual symposium on student activism

January 28, 2019

By Caroline Harris C’19

On January 25, the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law presented its annual Symposium: Tinker at 50: Student Activism on Campus. Mary Beth Tinker, one of the named plaintiffs in the Tinker case, delivered the keynote address on student activism.

 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District was a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision defining the First Amendment rights of students in public schools. During her presentation, Tinker discussed the experience coming of age during the Vietnam War and how her upbringing inspired her to take action within her community.

Tinker’s father was a Methodist minister. “Conscience!” Tinker said. “He taught us all about conscience.”

She reflected upon the Methodist values her father instilled in her, and how those values appeared at odds with what she saw in the newspapers and on TV.

“On the news, we didn’t see much love and peace,” Tinker said. “In reality, what were the adults doing? War, war, war.”

Tinker planned to participate in a silent protest against the Vietnam War by wearing a black armband to school with four other students. Her public school in Des Moines, Iowa, threatened suspension. The school policy specifically stated that a student wearing an armband would be immediately asked to remove it. As Tinker decided whether to go through with the protest, she thought of other examples of activism.

“I wasn’t a rabble-rouser at all, but I had a powerful combination of strong feelings and examples of people who take those feelings and do something about it,” she said. “I had my parents, I had the Birmingham kids, the kids in the civil rights movement.”

The Tinker family had previously participated in civil rights activism. Tinker’s mother, Lorena, was a leader of the Peace Organization in Des Moines.

On the day of the protest, a teacher asked Tinker to remove her armband. She did, but she was still suspended.

“I learned an important lesson that day,” she said. “You don’t need a lot of courage! You just need a tiny little bit.”

The Iowa Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU agreed to help with the Tinker family’s case, which ultimately went to the Supreme Court. Tinker recalled receiving hate mail and death threats as the jury determined whether her actions constituted a “substantial disruption” to her school’s learning environment. The court’s 7–2 decision held that public school students are protected by the First Amendment. In what became known as the “Tinker test”, a U.S. public school official most prove students’ speech substantially disrupts the school when curbing their expressions.

Currently, Tinker speaks at schools across the country about student rights and the importance of student activism. According to Tinker, social media has revolutionized how students protest, providing a large-scale platform for advancing social justice.

“We had armbands. They have smartphones. It makes a world of difference,” she said.

Tinker was “surprised” when she won the case, explaining that she celebrates the anniversary of her suspension. She believes the case is a testament to the importance of the First Amendment, because “kids really do need to stick up for themselves.”

Reflecting on the enduring importance of the Tinker case, Tinker said: “It’s one of the most beautiful rulings for what education should be in a democracy.”