BELLINGHAM — In 1965, a shy 13-year-old girl and a small piece of black cloth set in motion a fight that helped shape the rights of students everywhere.
Tinker, her brother and a friend wanted to wear black armbands to school to mourn those killed on both sides of the Vietnam War and to support U.S. Sen. Bobby Kennedy’s call for a Christmas truce. When administrators got wind of the plan, they hurriedly made a rule against black armbands.
The students wore them anyway. They were suspended.
After the school board wouldn’t budge on the rule, her family sued the school district, saying it had violated the students’ First Amendment rights to free speech.
The case made its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled 7-2 that students and teachers do not “shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate.”
“The lesson there is: if you’re scared, just use the tiny little bit of courage you do have, because that’s how much I had, and look at how much difference you can make,” she told the crowd of mostly students Thursday.
Before that ruling, the nation’s highest court had not addressed students’ free-speech rights, said Mike Hiestand, a lawyer and professor touring with Tinker.
“We were telling 18-year-olds you couldn’t wear an armband to school to protest a war you could be drafted into in a matter of months,” Hiestand said.
Tinker spent much of the presentation explaining how her family became interested in the civil rights and peace movements, and how the two were connected. The talk was as much a history lesson as it was a personal account.
She and Hiestand also told the audience about a more recent ruling, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, that allows high schools to censor student newspapers. That case rolls back rights the Tinker ruling bestowed on students, and some courts are starting to apply it to colleges.
At the end, Tinker took questions from the crowd. They asked her about the Voting Rights Act, social media and the Occupy movement.
Tinker also asked the students about things they’ve done to stand up for their beliefs. They mentioned signing petitions online, organizing around school food-service workers who wanted to form a union, and counter-protesting demonstrations they disagreed with, such as the vehemently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church.
“The answer to hate speech is more speech,” Tinker said, not censorship.
Tinker encouraged the crowd at Western to embrace that concept, saying young people are some of the most likely to change the world, just as she did.
“Mary Beth really did what she did with an armband. Can you imagine what she could have done if she’d had Facebook? Or Twitter?” Hiestand told the audience. “… She won that right, but it’s really up to you all to use it.”