Mary Beth Tinker was just 13 when she spoke out against the Vietnam War by wearing a black armband to her Iowa school in 1965. When the school suspended her, she took her free speech case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. Now 61, she’s quit her part-time job as a nurse and is traveling across the country championing free speech in public schools.
It’s a message Christian students should take to heart as well, said Alliance Defending Freedom’s (ADF) Jeremy Tedesco: “Christian students need to understand that they have the same First Amendment rights as anyone else.”
After visiting a school in Philadelphia this week, Tinker is scheduled to travel to 18 states and the District of Columbia as part of the “Tinker Tour.” She’ll log more than 10,000 miles throughout the eastern United States before her tour ends Nov. 25 at a school in suburban Kansas City, Mo. She plans a tour of schools in western states in the spring. Her message: Students should take action on issues important to them.
Tinker said standing up isn’t just “practice for the future,” but something children can do today. And students have a variety of concerns, she said, whether it’s school uniforms, bans on chewing gum or, at one school she visited, low levels of sand in one of the sandboxes.
The tour is backed by several journalism and First Amendment groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which took Tinker’s case to the Supreme Court.
The tour’s major sponsor is the Student Press Law Center, a Washington nonprofit advocate for student First Amendment rights. A lawyer for the group, Mike Hiestand, joins Tinker on the tour to answer legal questions and talk to student newspaper groups about censorship and other issues.
Hiestand calls Tinker a “rock star.” The 1969 decision in her case, he said, was a high-water mark for student speech. The decision said students don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
For Christians, those rights can include actions like praying publicly, passing out literature, and wearing apparel with faith statements. Yet “many schools have an allergic reaction to religious speech,” Tedesco said. For instance, an elementary school in Pennsylvania prevented a fifth-grader from distributing flyers inviting classmates to her church’s Christmas party last year. In March, an appeals court sided with ADF, ruling the school’s action unconstitutional.
Allowing free speech is an indispensable part of a school’s function as an extension of the federal government, yet schools often are wary of appearing to endorse certain viewpoints—particularly religious ones. Still Tedesco said, “permitting speech is not the same thing as endorsing speech.”