Free speech fighter: Mary Beth Tinker talks First Amendment, student activism

Mary Beth Tinker spoke in the Wildcat Chamber on Feb. 24 on the constitutional rights of students and young people. Tinker is an American free speech activist known for her role in the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Supreme Court case, which ruled that Warren Harding Junior High School could not punish her for wearing a black armband in school in support of a truce in the Vietnam War. The case set a precedent for student speech in schools. (Alex Shaw | Collegian Media Group)

Mary Beth Tinker, First Amendment activist and plaintiff in 1969’s landmark Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines, spoke in the Wildcat Chamber on Saturday about the impact of free speech as part of the Living Democracy Project, an offshoot of the KSUnite movement.

In 1965, the Des Moines school board suspended Tinker and five other students from school for wearing armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. Tinker went on to challenge the constitutionality of her suspension in the highest court in America. The court ruled the suspension unconstitutional, setting precedent for future cases regarding a student’s right to freedom of expression.

In the free-to-the-public speech, Tinker, a self-professed “Supreme Court groupie,” said she did not foresee the impact of the case at the time. She said she was merely standing in defense of her conscience.

“I did not know that this case was going to be this big landmark case for students’ rights,” Tinker said. “Yes, it was wonderful that we won, but it was really hard to be very happy about it because there were still so many soldiers in Vietnam.”

Tinker spoke at length about the capabilities of young people to enact change, citing parallels between her generation and the students who call for change today, like those who have organized walkouts and confronted lawmakers in the days following the Feb. 14 school shooting in Florida.

“I was living in mighty times like now, and so we found ways to speak up as these kids all over the country are right now today,” Tinker said. “These kids really need to start speaking up for themselves, because when they do, it’s so powerful.”

Tinker’s words provoked a positive response among some attendees due to their political relevance today.

“I thought it was really informative,” said Sarah McDermott, senior in entrepreneurship and student senator. “I’m thinking about how I can engage people that think differently than me and find common ground, or how to have different beliefs and coexist in the same space.”

Stephen Wolgast, instructor of mass communications, said the willingness of people like Tinker to go to court to protect their rights has allowed the public’s right to free speech to evolve.

“Students actually have a voice; they are allowed to speak freely thanks to the First Amendment of the Constitution,” Wolgast said. “In 1791, when the Bill of Rights was passed, we didn’t have the free speech rights that we have today. They have evolved and changed because someone is willing to stand up and take some kind of punishment like going to court.”

Tinker said the actions of children allow us to “see things with new eyes,” and their capability to imagine a better world is the first step to unlocking it.

“Young people are the future,” Tinker said. “Young people are also the present. You’re here today. We don’t have to wait for the future.”

My name is Kaylie McLaughlin and I'm the ex-managing editor and audience engagement manager of the Collegian. Previously, I've been the editor-in-chief and the news editor. In the past, I have also contributed to the Royal Purple Yearbook and KKSU-TV. Off-campus, you can find my bylines in the Wichita Eagle, the Shawnee Mission Post and KSNT News. I grew up just outside of Kansas City in Shawnee, Kansas. I’m a senior in digital journalism with a minor in French and a secondary focus in international and area studies. As a third-generation K-Stater, I bleed purple and my goal is to serve the Wildcat community with accurate coverage.