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You v. The United States

Mary Beth and John Tinker display their black armbands in 1968.


After my first run in with the legal system, I was sure the law was not for me.

And no, it was not a typical encounter. Unlike my fellow 16-year-olds who were getting hauled into the local police station for breaking curfews and other typical teen miscreant behavior, I was involved in a different type of legal trouble. For an entire year I was tormented by the unruly and often misunderstood subject of constitutional law.

On a whim, I chose to compete on my high school’s intense constitutional law team, where I was willfully shackled to complex legal jargon and lengthy Supreme Court opinions. Sitting dutifully in front of my Emanuel Law Outlines, the behemoth textbook beloved by law students, I was continually frustrated by the concepts and doctrines dryly presented before me. It seemed strange to me then, as it does to many college students today, that these technical principles and specific legal definitions were responsible for safeguarding my most fundamental rights.

The Supreme Court, cloaked in its prestige and erudition, appeared to be almost wholly removed from the type of conflicts that I encountered in my actual teen life. This same feeling of apathy towards a justice system that seems all-powerful yet totally unrelatable runs rampant on many college campuses, especially when it comes to the paramount constitutional issue of free speech. Thus, civically engaged students are now faced with the seemingly insurmountable task of getting our peers to care about their free speech rights, when universities refuse to fill in the gaps.

In 2016, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni reported that out of “over 1,100 liberal arts colleges and universities [surveyed,] only a handful — 18% — require students to take even one survey course in American history or government before they graduate.” In this environment of limited civic education, we must turn to more creative methods to enlighten a new generation of students on the vital importance of free speech. So, instead of presenting a painfully dry diatribe on the legal, governmental, and historical significance of free speech, I am going to tell a story about people.

Mary Beth Tinker did not wake up on the morning of Dec. 16, 1965 and declare her intent to become the subject of a seminal Supreme Court decision. Maybe not even an appellate decision, or a lowly trial court’s minute order. Instead, Mary Beth, along with her co-plaintiffs John Tinker and Christopher Eckhardt, arrived at their respective schools that day with the fairly innocuous desire to voice their opinions about a war that they loathed. Wearing black armbands to show their opposition to the Vietnam War, the students participated in an act of expression prohibited by the Des Moines school district. What resulted from this display of political expression was a profound legal conundrum that would have lasting implications for students and their speech rights.

Mary Beth’s choice to voice her opposition to the controversial war effort not only resulted in her suspension from school that day, but also forced the Supreme Court to confront an issue of vital constitutional importance: Are public high school students guaranteed some level of free speech protection under the First Amendment, even while in school?

With a resounding yes, the Supreme Court sided with Mary Beth and her co-plaintiffs, declaring: “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Mary Beth Tinker was the David that prevailed in the face of the Goliath that was the school district’s control. So even if your university seems to be an untouchable giant in the fight for free speech, if you use non-violent, non-disruptive protest as your weapon of choice, chances are the law is on your side.

At any given time, each student in the United States can find themselves in this Tinker-type scenario. Constitutional controversies relating to free speech often do not arise from the most provocative or public members of American society. Rather, it is the lone activist distributing pamphlets or the college professor attempting to voice a theory in class who find their rights imperiled and in need of redress. Therefore, it is not merely politicians, lawyers, or celebrities who must care about the Supreme Court and the free speech rights that it safeguards — everybody in the United States could find themselves fighting to defend their liberty. And when they defend their own liberty, they help establish rights for others, too.

If there is one lesson to be learned from the story of Mary Beth Tinker and her black armband, it is that caring about free speech is simultaneously practical and of fundamental importance. There is no individual in the country who escapes its purview, and it allows even the smallest of voices to be given equal legal footing in advocating their ideas. If my dejected high school self can read between the lines of Emanuel Law Outlines and find the profound humanity hiding under a heap of big legal words, you can too.

Caitlin Quinn is a rising sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania.

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