Tinker continues crusade for First-Amendment, student empowerment

November 5, 2013

By Katy Cardin at USA Today College

In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

The Tinker v. Des Moines case stemmed from a Vietnam War protest staged by Mary Beth Tinker – then a student at Warren Harding Junior High School – and fellow students, who wore black armbands to school despite being told that the bands were prohibited and would result in suspension.

Tinker, now 60, is taking her story all over the country. The Tinker Tour will bring real-life civic lessons to schools and communities through the stories of young people, Tinker said.

“This is a particularly important time for young people to know their rights and also use them,” she said. “We not only want to encourage youth voices, but we are also collecting stories about how students are using their rights to have an effect on the issues that affect them and their lives right now.”

Tinker said students’ rights are still infringed upon by their schools’ administration – citing Modesto Junior College in California banning a student from handing out U.S. Constitutions in September as an example.

“Schools should be places where these voices are encouraged, where these actions are encouraged,” Tinker said. “Students are really getting involved with the issues of the day and not just talking about what’s going on but taking action and making a difference.”

In a release by Modesto Junior College, President Jill Stearns explained the school is regretful for the way the situation was handled, stating it was a misunderstanding.

“Students may distribute printed material on campus in areas generally available to students and the community as long as they do not disrupt the orderly operation of the college,” the release stated. “College staff have been provided the policy and procedure for review and follow-up training is planned to further ensure that clear and accurate information is provided in the future.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) rated 409 schools, issuing a green light to those with policies that infringe the least on students’ rights, a yellow light to the middle ground and a red light to those with the most infringing policies in its Spotlight on Speech Codes 2013: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses.

Sixty two percent of the schools rated were given a red-light ranking, 32% a yellow-light ranking, 3.7% a green light and nine were not ranked.

Although the report stated that for the fifth year in a row the amount of red-light ranking schools had decreased, there’s still more infringement than one would think, said Greg Lukianoff, FIRE president and author of Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the end of American Debate.

“What scares me is students are learning the wrong habits,” he said. “They’re too used to being told to ask for permission, or have a free speech zone instead of having it wherever they want.”

However, students continue to exercise their freedom of speech, petition, press and assembly.

At the University of Vermont, the Student Climate Culture (SCC) club has been working to promote fossil fuel divestment by rallying and demonstrating to the board of trustees.

“Our real power is in numbers,” club president Caroline Decunzo said. “We do have constraints; we can’t interfere with normal university business. A lot of times our actions flirt with that line.”

Most recently, the club held a demonstration in which 150 people marched inside the student center and chanted against the board of trustees having private meetings discussing fossil fuel divestment, Decunzo said.

The demonstration was successful and the board agreed to hold all discussions about fossil fuel divestment in an open format, she said.

“I think that [the University of Vermont] is blessed in that it’s relatively liberal,” Decunzo said. “Some people spend time in jail for trying to make changes. If that’s what it takes and that’s what you’re willing to do, then you should go for it.”

Tinker said the main goal of her tour is to encourage youth voices and to document youth voices that are already active throughout the country.

“We’re doing it by telling my story and the stories of other young people in history and today who have used the First Amendment, and telling students about legal issues involving their rights and the schools’ for free speech and free press,” she said. “I just want to encourage all of the young people to stand up for their rights to make a better world and not to be discouraged, but keep on keeping on.”

Schools: Modesto Junior College Cases: Modesto Junior College: Students Barred from Distributing Constitutions on Constitution Day