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July 01, 2008

A Conversation with Mary Beth Tinker

Mary Beth Tinker, our Human Rights Hero for this issue, was recently interviewed by Stephen J. Wermiel, co-chair of the Human Rights editorial board. For background on Ms. Tinker, see the Human Rights Hero column on the back cover.

Human Rights: What’s the state of student free speech or student rights more broadly as we approach the fortieth anniversary of Tinker?

Mary Beth Tinker: They are in about the same state as students’ well-being overall, whether you’re talking about health issues or educational quality or housing or access to clean air and water, which are not very good right now. And I’m speaking as a nurse who has worked primarily with young people.

For one thing, No Child Left Behind has not been helpful in teaching students about their rights or helping them to model democratic behavior. Curriculum directed toward standardized tests in math and science may “train” young people in certain skills, particularly test-taking skills, but are lacking in other areas. So, despite the valiant efforts of history and government teachers across the country, it is no wonder that we are seeing woefully poor indicators of students’ knowledge of the First Amendment, for example.

Some states see rising test scores as success, but many of us who work with youths are skeptical. Critical thinking and creativity, which are so important to participatory democracy, have been sacrificed.

HR: How do you feel about the Tinker case itself after forty years?

MBT: The Tinker ruling said that students had the right to free speech and other First Amendment rights unless their speech was “substantially disruptive” or intruded on the rights of others. So that was a foundation, because it’s not a very high standard.

Since then, school districts have claimed that various activities are disruptive or intrude on the rights of others. The ruling leaves a lot of leeway for principals and school boards to attempt to censor students, and they often succeed.

Regardless, of course, I am happy that the Warren court ruled in favor of students’ rights. In a democracy, the people who are affected by decisions are supposed to be the ones who have the right to speak on their own behalf, and this should include young people. Today, I see so many examples of young people standing up for their own interests.

For example, students in Ohio recently developed the Ohio Youth Agenda, a collaboration of youths across the state advocating for improvement in schools, counseling, and education funding. Students in Maryland were featured in the Washington Post recently, picketing against a new polluting freeway near their school. Another Maryland girl, Sarah Boltuck, succeeded in getting state legislation passed that will allow seventeen-year-olds to register to vote if they will turn eighteen by the time of the election. Twenty thousand youths are affected.

At a school in Florida, students had to fight for the right to wear rainbow clothing and bring stickers to school. They eventually won. Alondra Jones, in California, challenged unfair funding of her school and changed the school funding system for the whole state. And these are just a few examples that come to mind.

HR: Over the forty years, though, other cases have eroded the protection that Tinker established. How do you feel about that?

MBT: Free speech rights of students have been curtailed, certainly, but the erosion is not limited to students. And besides Court rulings like Hazelwood, Morse v. Frederick, or the recent Jacobs ruling in Nevada, students’ free speech rights have been curtailed in other ways. For example, I understand that about 40 percent of high school newspapers have been eliminated in the last ten to fifteen years.

HR: In the fortieth anniversary year of Tinker next year, what are you celebrating?

MBT: I will be celebrating the spirit of young people and their creative energy in standing up for their rights against all odds, and their humor and concern, which are so needed in this current period. And I will be celebrating a Supreme Court that stood with young people to affirm their rights.

HR: And what should students of the country think about or celebrate?

MBT: I urge students to celebrate their right to speak out by becoming engaged in issues that are important to their lives, and to exercise their First Amendment rights and, indeed, all their rights.

HR: You’ve spent a lot of time speaking to student groups and accepting the mantle of a spokesperson for student rights since the Tinker decision. How do you see that role?

MBT: My parents put their beliefs into action, and they were examples to me. My father was a Methodist minister, and my parents later became Quakers. They spent their lives working for peace and justice. Over the years, I also met others and heard their stories about standing up for what they believed in. These people motivated and inspired me. So that is how I see my role with young people, to educate and inspire them. Besides teaching them basic civics, I tell them real stories about people, mostly young people, from the past and present, who have changed the world.

For example, I may tell them about Barbara Johns, who was sixteen in 1951 when she called an assembly at her school in Virginia, rallying students for better conditions at their school. She later became a plaintiff in the Brown case. Or I tell them about the childrens’ march of 1904, where child factory workers presented Teddy Roosevelt with a demand to end their sweatshop conditions. These are just examples of the many true stories that I choose from.

And then I tell them about young people today who are involved in various issues, like the ones I talked about earlier, and others.

HR: Are you hopeful that young people will continue to stand up for their rights, that the courts and the country will become more appreciative of the rights of students again?

MBT: Yes. I see examples all over the country of students who are standing up for what they believe in, whether it’s for peace, clean air, clean water, uniform policies, religious freedom, animal rights, gay rights, Darfur. There are so many issues students care about.

I hear about students who, themselves, wear different, meaningful symbols—whether it’s T-shirts, armbands, or buttons. Some are involved in the political process, working for different candidates that support young people’s issues. All of that’s very heartening to me.

HR: How about the role of lawyers, courts, and law in defending student rights? What do you think has happened over the last decades?

MBT: Young people cannot make progress without the support and alliance of adults, whether they’re lawyers or nurses, like myself, or parents or community partners. And so young people need to have supporters in the community who advocate for them also and who help them to advocate for themselves. That’s the way I see the role of lawyers.

Adults can use their skills and talents to promote young people and teenagers, who need these skills more than ever in today’s world. Because the condition of young people today is not good. There are so many indicators, whether health indicators or indicators of educational success—for example, graduation rates, college rates. I just heard statistics that around 50 percent of Washington, D.C. high school students are graduating. I understand that only around 9 percent of those high school students are completing a four-year college degree program.

Economic opportunities for young people are not good, and so many children go without health insurance. The Children’s Health Insurance Program has been under attack. So many areas exist where young people really need advocates, especially legal advocates, and people with all kinds of skills and talents.

HR: One of the great messages of Tinker was not to fear protest—that school officials should accept protest as an essential part of democracy and even of education. Have we lost sight of that message?

MBT: Well, I think the political climate in the country discourages young people from speaking up. Protest is only one of those ways that students might want to speak up. And I think it’s a big mistake in a democracy to discourage people from being involved in the democratic process, in whatever form that may take.

Throughout history a lot of our progress has been the result of people who were considered dissidents in their time; without encouraging a climate where free speech and dissidents’ voices flourish, we won’t benefit as much as we could as a society. And we’ll be held back in our own development and in relationship to other societies that are encouraging these kinds of expressions.

HR: And what’s your feeling about the Supreme Court’s most recent decision—the Bong Hits case?

MBT: That case, where Joseph Frederick unfurled a banner saying “Bong Hits 4 Jesus,” was about more than just the so-called frivolous message. When I spoke to him on the telephone before the case was argued at the Supreme Court, he told me how he came to put that on his banner. He said he did that because he had been studying the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights in school, and he wanted to test and see if he really had First Amendment rights or if it was just something that he had learned in school books.

So he wanted to put something on his banner, and if he had just said “Hooray for the Olympic torch,” which was going by, he wouldn’t have been able to test his rights. So he sure did pick something that would get the attention of the school and others: “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.” But his real message was that students should have First Amendment rights. And that is a serious message.

I’m sorry to see that the Court has once again limited the rights of students, not only in terms of the content of the message, but also the school’s jurisdiction seems to have been extended because Joseph was standing across the street from the school and there was some question about whether it was actually a school-sponsored event. That’s a big issue being debated now in our country—how far does the school’s jurisdiction reach? And this ruling seems to have extended that.

HR: Yes, we will have to watch and see how far the reach of school officials continues to expand. Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions, and thank you very much for your continued dedication to the rights of students.