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Remembering Chris Eckhardt, True Free Speech Hero

By on January 4, 2013

As 2013 hits its stride, America has one fewer free speech hero. Last night we at FIRE learned of the sad passing of Chris Eckhardt, a plaintiff in the historic student speech case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, decided by the Supreme Court in 1969.

Our friend David Hudson at the First Amendment Center beautifully sums up Eckhardt’s brave stand for student rights as a high school student in Iowa in 1965:

His is not a household name, as he was not the first plaintiff listed in the lawsuit. That honor fell to the other two plaintiffs with the last name of Tinker – John F. Tinker and Mary Beth Tinker. Yet Eckhardt was an essential part of the case.

In 1965 Eckhardt, like the Tinkers, wore a black armband to Theodore Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa, even though a hastily passed school policy banned such symbols. The students wore the armbands to protest U.S. policy in Vietnam, support the Christmas truce proposed by Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and mourn those who had died in the war. When Eckhardt arrived at school wearing his armband, he went straight to the principal’s office to turn himself in.

The Tinkers and Eckhardt were suspended and challenged their suspensions in federal court, contending school officials had violated their First Amendment free-speech rights. They did not prevail in the lower federal courts. Believing in the righteousness of their cause, though, they took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

[...]

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the three students, 7-2, and issued its famous opinion in Tinker v. Des Moines. “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” Justice Abe Fortas wrote for the majority. “In order for the State in the person of school officials to justify prohibition of a particular expression of opinion, it must be able to show that its action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.”

[...]

The Tinker case remains the leading K-12 student-speech case in American jurisprudence. It also represents the high-water mark of student First Amendment free-speech rights.

Eckhardt was justifiably proud of his significant role in that history. I met him in person for the first time at the symposium “Gathering at the Schoolhouse Gate” at the University of Missouri at Kansas City Law School in September 2012. He spoke with passion about the First Amendment and freedom in general.

He quipped that he was the “et al.” in the case. 

Christopher Eckhardt was far more than an “et al.” He was a litigant in one of the most important U.S. Supreme Court cases in history.

In his full piece, which I strongly encourage reading, Hudson shares Eckhardt’s co-plaintiff Mary Beth Tinker’s thoughts on his life and on his role in the Tinker case.

We at FIRE are saddened by Chris Eckhardt’s passing. This is especially true for my colleague Will Creeley and me, who, like David, were honored to have met Chris at the University of Missouri at Kansas City Law School this past September.

Chris’s determination to stand up for his right to free speech, his decision to use that right to speak out against what he viewed as a grave injustice, and his willingness to take his cause all the way up to the Supreme Court forever changed the course of student rights for the better, affecting countless American students for generations to come. We mourn our loss and celebrate his life.

Image: Eckhardt and FIRE’s Will Creeley in September 2012