“Stand up. Speak out.”
Those were words of advice from Mary Beth Tinker to more than 600 St. Louis area high school students. Tinker, who was a defendant in the landmark First Amendment case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, was the keynote speaker at the Sponsors of School Publications of Greater St. Louis Spring Conference at Webster University March 11.
Tinker started her presentation by quizzing the young journalists about the First Amendment. She congratulated them on knowing more than most U.S. citizens about the rights guaranteed in the amendment. She went on to stress how important freedom of expression is for students and all citizens.
“We had armbands, but look at all you can do with social media,” Tinker said. “We have the tools, but we need the rights to use them.”
Equality is an ideal in our country, but not something we actually have, Tinker said, adding: “That is where young people come in. Use your imagination, your technology, your energy, your creativity to change the world.”
She spoke of teen movements that have made a difference and influenced policy. She reminded the group that teens are not just the future, but the present as well. She said there is a role for young people in social movements.
Tinker said she and her five siblings learned from her parents how to live and how to speak up for democracy.
When she was young, Tinker and her sister would cook the nightly dinner for her family. Each night they would have the television on, and it was filled with “scenes of war and of body counts,” she said.
“As kids we are told not to think about big issues like war – just focus on school,” Tinker said. “But how can you not think about war and the world around you?”
Tinker went on to explain the events that led to the controversial armbands.
“I wasn’t a person who broke the rules,” she said. “I just thought kids should have the rights – the right to express we were sad. I had learned about rights in school.”
After her school suspension for wearing the armband, her brother also was suspended. It was with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union that the case made its way through the court system.
Tinker said she just kept on doing what high school students do: homework. The case took several years to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
“When it was decided, it was a victory for us and for you,” Tinker said. “Small actions do make history.”
In addition to hearing from Tinker, students from 30 area high schools attended workshops presented by regional journalism professionals. The workshops were designed to provide students ideas on how to improve the journalism skills and what to think about when considering a career in the field.
Tinker also took part in a panel discussion that evening. The panel of First Amendment experts discussed the impact of the Tinker and Hazelwood court decisions. That event was co-sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, Gateway Journalism Review, Gateway Media Literacy Partners and the St. Louis Media History Foundation.
For more information on Tinker, read “Teens' armband protest led to landmark free speech case” by Dale Singer.