Mary Beth Tinker was only 13 years old when she chose to wear a black armband alongside her brother, John, their friend Chris Eckhardt and other students. The band was labeled with a peace sign to promote peace in Vietnam rather than war.
Tinker would later find herself as the face of one of the most well-renowned Supreme Court cases advocating for free speech in schools.
According to Tinker, the court case shook the country, as it is a landmark for students having a voice in school. The case is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
The Tinker ruling, officially known as Tinker v. Independent Community School District No. 21, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), is still cited in almost all student First Amendment cases. Furthermore, almost all American civics and history textbooks refer to the case.
More than 50 years later, Tinker remains an activist of free speech.
On May 30, Tinker traveled to Williamsville East High School to discuss the importance of the freedom of speech.
According to the Amherst Bee, “Due to a grant, Tinker was able to speak to junior and senior high school students at Williamsville East High School…The Williamsville Education Foundation Inc. awarded East Social Studies teacher Tim Redmond a grant to help pay for Tinker’s travel expenses.”
Tinker spoke a powerful message while on stage at the high school:
“You don’t have to be the strongest, most courageous person in the history of the world. You can be you. You can be a scared 13-year-old, you can just be nervous as anything and you can still do something… You can still think of something to do to speak up.”
Tinker spoke to East Side News and brought out the facts in her speech. Tinker highlights the fact that only about 25% of United States high schools uphold the Freedom of the Press, granted by the First Amendment.
Williamsville East High School was fortunate enough to uphold the freedom of the press.
Tinker also discussed the importance of students educating their teachers on difference of political ideologies.
“Sometimes students have something to teach their teachers”
Occasionally, she shares pictures of students that have been silenced on school campuses and shares their stories.
Concluding her time with the students, she urges them to continue to fight regardless of the consequences and to make small steps toward creating a more diverse and open discussion.