WASHINGTON -- Mary Beth Tinker was just 13 when she spoke out against the Vietnam War by wearing a black armband to her Iowa school in 1965. When the school suspended her, she took her free speech case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. Now 61, she's quit her part-time job as a nurse and will travel the country telling her story.
Tinker will visit her first school Monday in Philadelphia. After that, she's scheduled to travel by RV to 18 states and the District of Columbia as part of what's being called the "Tinker Tour." She'll log 10,000 to 15,000 miles, the equivalent of driving across the country three to five times, before her tour ends Nov. 25 in suburban Kansas City. Along the way, she'll stop at more than three dozen locations, most of them schools, and she plans a tour of schools in western states in the spring. Her message: Students should take action on issues important to them.
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"It's better for our whole society when kids have a voice," Tinker said in a recent interview at her home in Washington.
The tour, which will include participating in Constitution Day celebrations Tuesday in Philadelphia and visiting her old school in Iowa, won't mark the first time Tinker has talked to young people. After a career as a piano technician, a nurse and then a nurse organizer for the Service Employees International Union, Tinker started speaking more to students about a decade ago.
She tells young people "You, one person, can make a difference," and "You're important. You are someone."
She said standing up isn't just "practice for the future," but something children can do today. And students have a variety of concerns, she said, whether it's school uniforms, bans on chewing gum or, at one school she visited, the fact there wasn't enough sand in the sandbox.
The fall leg of Tinker's tour is expected to cost about $50,000, and it's backed by a number of First Amendment and journalism groups, including Washington's Newseum, which donated $3,500 for black armbands that Tinker will sign and give out. The American Civil Liberties Union, which took Tinker's case to the Supreme Court originally, is among the organizations endorsing the trip.
The tour's major sponsor is the Student Press Law Center, a Washington nonprofit advocate for student First Amendment rights. A lawyer for the group, Mike Hiestand, will join Tinker on the tour to answer legal questions and talk to student newspaper groups about censorship and other issues.
Hiestand, who has spent more than 20 years working with student journalists, called Tinker a "rock star." He said he had been talking about her case with students long before meeting her about three years ago. The 1969 decision in her case, he said, was a high-water mark for student speech. The decision famously says students don't "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." But Hiestand said that since then, the law has changed drastically and students' rights have been curtailed.
Tinker said that "every time you turn around," it seems there's a case where "a kid is getting in trouble for something that they're expressing." But she said she'll tell students to stand up anyway: "You have a lot of power if you will use it."