Tinker speaks on free speech in public schools

Mary Beth Tinker is a rock star among legal circles. After she spoke at COSA’s session on free speech in public schools on Friday at the School Law Seminar, she was surrounded by admirers. Audience members were hoping to get a signed black armband – a piece of history from one of the students in the seminal 1969 First Amendment student free speech case Tinker v. Des Moines.

Tinker recounted for the audience how she, a young girl in Iowa, ended up as a plaintiff for the most famous student free speech court case in U.S. history. She was an unlikely rebel. Her father, a Methodist minister, was a civil rights proponent and he taught his children to be respect all cultures. Tinker and her younger sister watched the evening news, including coverage of the Birmingham, Alabama, children’s march in 1963. She admired those children, and was shaken, along with the rest of the country, when the KKK bombed the church. “Four children died,” she said. “They were the same ages as me and my sisters.”

In 1965, the television news coverage started to include something new: body counts from the Vietnam War. “We were already sad about Birmingham,” she said. “Now we had war, day after day. We didn’t know what to do about this.”

By now, Tinker was in junior high school. Some older students discussed wearing black armband to school as a protest to the Vietnam War. The administrators heard about the planned protest and prohibited students from wearing the armbands to school.

Tinker and another student decided to wear armbands the next day. “I was nervous and shy but kept thinking about those kids in Birmingham,” she said. She was immediately sent to the principal’s officer where she was told to take off the armband. She did so, and thought that was the end of the matter. Instead, she was suspended and sent home.

The district ended up suspending other students and sparked the court case that eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. On a 7 to 2 vote in 1969, the court decided that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

Tinker, a pediatric nurse, works with students and other groups about youth and First Amendment issues. She pointed that children and teens are the age group most likely to live in poverty. “I have found that young people are effective in advocating for the own interests if they only have the right to do that,” she said. “But without their rights, they cannot contribute to the larger society.”

Listen to ASBJ editor Michelle Healy interview Mary Beth Tinker for the February issue of American School Board Journal at

Go to top