By Tod Olson
Source: The New York Times Upfront
Justice Abe Fortas wrote that neither teachers nor students "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of expression or speech at the schoolhouse gate."
Some of the Supreme Court's biggest cases began with the protests of young people. Here are three tales of students who spoke out and got the Supreme Court to listen.
Mary Beth Tinker
How one teenage protester took on the system and won the right of free speech for students across the country.
In 1965, Mary Beth Tinker spent her evenings like most 13-year-old girls in Des Moines, Iowa. But every now and then, things would set her apart from the herd - like the time in history class when she questioned America's growing military involvement in Vietnam. "Mary," her teacher scolded, "there's a pep rally this Friday; don't you ever think of having fun?"
To Mary, protest seemed natural. Her parents, both Quakers with strong antiwar convictions, had been taking their children to civil-rights demonstrations from the time they could hold picket signs. So on December 16, when Mary showed up in school wearing a black armband, the other kids didn't think too much of it. Little did they know that history was in the making.
The armband symbolized Mary's support for a Christmas truce in Vietnam. The principal didn't like it, and suspended her. According to school board president Ora Niffenegger, the armband was potentially a "disturbing influence." Besides, he said, "Our country's leaders have decided on a course of action and we should support them."
By week's end, four more students, including Mary's older brother John, had been suspended for wearing armbands. The Tinker family got a lawyer. At the next school board meeting, Craig Sawyer, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), asked that the students be reinstated. A board member asked him in return if he would also support a student's right to wear an armband with a Nazi swastika on it. "Yes," Sawyer replied, "and the Jewish Star of David, and the Cross of the Catholic Church, and an armband saying, 'Down with the School Board.'"
The board voted 4-3 to continue the ban on armbands. The Iowa Civil Liberties Union filed suit in federal court, saying the ban violated the students' First Amendment right to freedom of expression.
Focus of Anger
In the meantime, Mary and the other suspended students were allowed to return to school. They traded in their armbands for black clothes to continue a protest of sorts. As the case was publicized, however, the Tinkers became the focus of anger in Des Moines. A radio talk-show host offered to pay the court costs for anyone who used a shotgun against Mary's father.
The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where in a historic ruling in 1969, Justice Abe Fortas wrote that neither teachers nor students "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of expression or speech at the schoolhouse gate." Des Moines school officials, he noted, had allowed students to wear political buttons of all sorts, including symbols of Nazism. They had no right to single out a protest against the Vietnam War for suppression. Mary Beth Tinker had had her day in court and won.
Today, Mary is a pediatric nurse in St. Louis, Missouri, and has grown to appreciate what she did as a teenager. She frequently speaks to students involved in First Amendment battles. The issue today is not the Vietnam War but the battle against the spread of AIDS and teen pregnancy, she says. Many students want the right to tackle sex-education issues in class and in student newspapers, but are being denied. "If [my case] has enabled kids to speak up more freely, then I'm glad," Mary says, "because they certainly need to be heard. Especially now."