Democracy Day includes activist for free speech

Lordstown event features woman of landmark case

LORDSTOWN — The woman whose actions as an eighth-grader led to a Supreme Court ruling for student speech in schools shared her story during a recent Democracy Day held at Lordstown High School.

Mary Beth Tinker, an American free speech activist known for her role in the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District Supreme Court case, spoke to students from Lordstown, Newton Falls, Newbury and Windham.

The Supreme Court ruled that under the First Amendment, Warren G. Harding Junior High School in Des Moines, Iowa, could not punish Tinker and others for wearing a black armband in school in support of a truce in the Vietnam War. The case set a precedent for student speech in schools.

Tinker said it is important that young people take part in the democratic process and have a voice shaping the political future.

She said she remembers in May 1963 there were marches in Birmingham, Ala., for people’s rights and on September 1963, four African-American girls were killed when a church was bombed.

“People stand up and risk their lives. Whatever you learn you can put into action,” she said.

Tinker said when she was in eighth grade when she and others protested the Vietnam War wearing black armbands.

“We knew we could get into trouble. I remembered the Birmingham kids and what they stood for. I decided to be brave and express myself. I was scared and nervous but did not want to back down. We all felt strongly about what we were doing and were willing to be suspended for it,” she said.

When she and others got suspended for wearing the armbands, the American Civil Liberties Union helped them defend freedom of speech.

“The haters called my family communists. My mother used to say we are not communists but Methodists,” she said.

Tinker said the decision by the Supreme Court ruled that students had the right to protest but not disrupt school or infringe on the rights of others, which has been debated since.

“We can agree that we can deal with controversy with respect. It takes all of you to stand up and use your First Amendment rights,” she said. It is important that people’s rights are balanced for the common good, she said.

“You as young people can find ways to speak up, stand up and make a difference. Young people have done this all through history,” Tinker said.

She noted that the 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Students who were turning 18 this year were eligible to register to vote at the assembly.

Tinker, who had previously worked in the emergency room of a hospital, now travels the country speaking on such issues as gun violence. She said many students today are protesting against gun violence and for peace following school shootings in Florida and Maryland.

Tinker spoke at at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where a gunman killed 17 people in February

She said with any civil disobedience there are consequences.

“We wore our armbands and got suspended but were willing to do this for speaking out on what we felt was wrong,” Tinker said.