Tinker Tour comes to town

Extraordinary change can come from the most unexpected of sources –even from a shy, 13 year old girl. Mary Beth Tinker was an 8th grade student with a cause and a little bit of courage, and with that she changed the First Amendment rights for students and teachers nationwide. After using a political fashion statement to express her opposition to the Vietnam War, Tinker found herself facing the Supreme Court in an effort to stand up for her beliefs –and won. Saint Louis University hosted the honorable Tinker and First Amendment attorney Mike Hiestand on Wednesday evening as one of their last stops on a nationwide “Tinker Tour.”

“I grew up in a time of great inequality, racial discrimination, war and a war economy,” stated Tinker. Having a childhood peppered with political movements and emotional happenings, the Vietnam War was yet another disheartening event influencing Tinker’s life. She and her siblings would come home from school and watch broadcasts of the war on television, seeing soldiers in body bags, homes in flames and terrified children. Tired of feeling helpless, they decided to express their opposition to the war and their support for Kennedy’s 1965 Vietnam Christmas Truce by wearing black arm bands to their public school.

“We were mourning for the dead on both sides of the war,” said Tinker.

The school suspended Tinker and the handful of peers who also bore the arm bands, and with the support of her political activist parents, Tinker sued the school board. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court in 1969 and, with a 7-2 ruling, Tinker won. Protecting the First Amendment rights of students and teachers in public institutions, the case stated that these individuals do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

It wasn’t until years later, while studying nursing at SLU, that Tinker began to fully grasp the significance of her case ruling. She realized that everything from nursing to law textbooks contained her momentous court case and that by standing up for what she believed in, she had unintentionally stood up for children’s rights all over the U.S.

Having outgrown her public speaking fears and shy persona, Tinker remains adamant about the significance of students’ free expression rights and is touring the nation in an effort to spread this message. She and Hiestand have been on the road since Sept. 15 and have made over 50 stops at colleges, high schools, law schools and other institutions.

“We want to encourage young people to speak up and stand up about the issues of today,” said Tinker. “It’s just a human drive to want to express yourself.”

Hiestand is helping in this effort of spreading real-life civics lessons around the nation and has been assisting students and administrators with student speech issues for the past two decades. He commented on the necessity of student feedback in educational institutions.

“There is a give and take….that’s what education is all about,” stated Hiestand.

Helping to bring their message to the local SLU community, communications professor Dan Kozlowski arranged for the Tinker Tour to stop at SLU. He introduced Tinker at Wednesday’s event, referring to her as an “unpretentious rebel.”

“She is a free speech rock star…and has an important message,” said Kozlowski. “It has been 40 some years, and [the] Tinker standard still stands.”

At the end of her speech Tinker commented on the importance of maintaining students’ free expression rights and continuing to oppose those who challenge them.

The Tinker Tour will be wrapping up their fall tour soon and will take on the Western states for their spring tour.