Tinker's 40th Anniversary

In celebration of Scholastic Journalism Week later this month, my journalism students and I will be wearing black armbands in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the Tinker court decision, which affirmed students' rights to free speech within public school settings.

Other students, teachers, and even members of our school's administration - including the principal - will be wearing armbands in recognition of the Tinker children's unwillingness to allow school officials to censor them.

Because of the Tinker ruling, students in American schools are free to express their views, so long as that expression does not disrupt the educational process of the school. By ruling in favor of the Tinker children, the U.S. Supreme Court found that neither students or teachers "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

The Tinker children's "crime" was the wearing of black armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam war. School officials disapproved of the message, and suspended the students indefinitely until they agreed to not wear the armbands. More than two weeks passed until the students returned to school after their scheduled period of protest ended.

Once news of the school's disciplinary action got out, the Iowa Civil Liberties Union agreed to represent the Tinker family in court. The plaintiffs argued that the school's actions violated the Tinker children's rights to free speech. The nation's highest court eventually agreed, and as such, future generations of schoolchildren have a legal precedent that supports their right to free speech.

Because I teach in Massachusetts, my students have additional free speech rights thanks to the state supreme court case of Pyle vs. South Hadley. That case found that students may engage in vulgar, non school-sponsored speech, so long as it does not disrupt the educational process of the school. The case stemmed from two brothers' attempts to wear Coed Naked t-shirts during gym class. Coed Naked t-shirts - known for sexual innuendo - were popular in the early-to mid-1990's. I remember because I owned a few of them while in high school. As members of the cross country team, a number of us had the shirt "Coed Naked Cross Country: Do It To The Rhythm."

Other popular shirts were "Coed Naked Soccer: Use Your Head to Score," "Coed Naked Football: Bring Out The Chains," and "Coed Naked Hockey: Two Minutes In The Box Isn't Enough."

My classmates and I never experienced any flack from teachers or administrators over the shirts. However, a South Hadley High School gym teacher didn't appreciate their messages, and tried to ban students from wearing them. Eventually the Massachusetts State Supreme Court ruled that the "vulgar" standard was capricious and subjective, and that the true measure of if something could be worn by a student was if it caused a substantial and material disruption to the educational process.

My students and I are extremely fortunate to conduct our business within a Massachusetts school led by an administrative team that acknowledges and understands the value of a free independent press, and the importance of students being free to express themselves. John and Mary Beth Tinker, Mr. B-G's English Blog salutes you!

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