Free-speech champion Tinker to speak at IU Southeast

Look up any list of landmark Supreme Court cases and you’re likely to see a reference to Mary Beth Tinker, who as an Iowa junior-high student protested the Vietnam War and helped set the legal precedent that students don’t “shed their rights at the schoolhouse gate.”

Now Tinker is on a multi-state civic education tour of colleges and high schools, talking about the importance of freedom of speech and political engagement. The tour will stop at IU Southeast on Wednesday, when Tinker will speak at 7 p.m. at the Paul W. Ogle Cultural and Community Center.

Tinker and Hiestand

Mary Beth Tinker and Mike Hiestand

Joining her will be Mike Hiestand, an attorney with the Student Press Law Center. The IU Southeast event, which is free and open to the public, is sponsored by the Department of Journalism, the Student Program Council and the Society of Professional Journalists Louisville Pro Chapter.

Adam Maksl, an assistant professor of journalism, is organizing the talk at IU Southeast. “Mary Beth’s case is interesting not only because it is a landmark case in free speech law,” he said in a news release, “but also because it is about a group of people standing up for something important to them. Isn’t that what free speech and democracy are all about?”

Mary Beth Tinker was only 13 when, in 1965, she and some other students decided to wear black armbands to school to express mourning for those killed in Vietnam and to support Sen. Robert Kennedy’s call for a Christmas truce. School officials suspended the students. Tinker sued, and in 1969 the Supreme Court ruled in her favor in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.

The 7-2 decision, written by Justice Abe Fortas, was a pivotal development in First Amendment law, particularly the free-speech rights of children and teenagers. Courts still use Tinker to determine whether school disciplinary policies are constitutionally justified.

Tinker is now a pediatric nurse with master’s degrees in nursing and public health, and she “continues to educate young people about their rights, speaking frequently to student groups across the country,” according to a news release announcing the current “Tinker Tour.” The 10-week tour will cover 19 states and include more than 40 stops. It will visit North Central High School in Indianapolis on Oct. 23.

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