By Brooke McAfee
Local teenagers and community members got a civics lesson on the First Amendment on Wednesday.
In 1965, a 13-year-old girl named Mary Beth Tinker wore a black armband to her school in Des Moines, Iowa to mourn the dead on both sides of the Vietnam War. She was suspended, along with several other students, for this peaceful act of protest. In 1969, the case went to the Supreme Court, where it was ruled that students and teachers have First Amendment rights within school. The Tinker v. Des Moines case has made a significant impact upon the freedom of students to express their thoughts and ideas.
Tinker, as a part of her tour around the country, spoke at Indiana University Southeast at 7 p.m. Wednesday to educate people about student’s rights and encourage young people to start speaking up for what they believe in. Along with the Vietnam War, she also witnessed racial discrimination towards African-Americans during her childhood, and many people advocated for civil rights.
“There were so many young people speaking out and standing up. It was when I was growing up, in the early 1960s. It seemed like everyone around me was a strong, brave, courageous person,” she said.
Tinker, who described herself as shy, did not begin speaking out until the issue of the black armbands came up. After the case was won, she grew up without understanding the full significance of the court decision. As an adult, she realized the effect it has had upon the United States.
“I slowly began to see that our case is part of a larger issue, of civil liberties, of children’s rights, of human rights. I started to see that there are young people all over the country who are standing up for their rights- all over the world. And I started meeting some of them, and I started talking to them about some of things they are speaking up about,” said Tinker.
Attorney Mike Hiestand, who is traveling with Tinker on the tour sponsored by the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., encouraged students to speak out.
“When you feel something from so deep within, from the very core of your heart, you need to say what you need to say. It is so important…young people have a message that we as adults have sometimes forgotten,” said Hiestand.
Many teenagers are passionate about causing change, according to Tinker.
“Young people want to make things better,” she said.
The Tinker v. Des Moines case has had a particularly significant effect upon student journalists.
“It has affected anyone who is in the [journalism] business or anyone in a high school situation where they have tried to give some sort of expression of themselves,” said journalist Jarod Clapp, a reporter for the New Albany Tribune covering the event.
Clapp said that students need to take advantage of their freedom to speak up.
“It’s just as important as it is for anyone else to stick up for their opinions. If you don’t stand up for what you believe in, what you believe in may disappear,” said Clapp.
Although speaking one’s mind can often lead to negative responses from others, Tinker said she thinks discussion between those of different beliefs can lead to tolerance.
“We are trying to have peace in the world, in our communities, in our schools, so we want conversations, so people don’t just yell at each other,” she said.
Joseph Dever, an IUS and FC graduate who attended the speech, said Tinker has had a major impact on him and the people around him.
“As a journalism student I’ve always been inspired by Mary Beth Tinker. It’s been really crazy hearing about her experience, and just seeing the change that she’s brought. What she does is so important to the students- to inspire them to take a stand, and express themselves. That’s one of the most important things for people to learn,” said Dever.
Dever said the First Amendment rights lead to a more successful society.
“I think it is important because everyone has the right to express what they think- they have the freedom to do that. I think when, as a society, we place limits on people, we place limits on society. I think society thrives from free press and free people,” he said.
IUS senior Rebecca Egger said standing up for one’s beliefs is an important part of learning and growing as an individual.
“I think it is important because they are people just like anyone, and they deserve to have their voice heard. I think when their voice isn’t heard, it can cause students to be discouraged, and I think, in some ways, it can inhibit you from trying and from pushing yourself forward and learning.”
One of the main points made throughout the speech, by both Tinker and Hiestand, was the importance of students realizing and acting upon their First Amendment rights.
“She is certainly part of history, but the thing we are trying to remind students of is that she’s part of history, but it’s a history that is ongoing. Her case is the law of the land today, that’s been cited over 6000 times…the rights that her case helped win are the rights that we are really trying to remind students that they exist today,” said Hiestand.