Mary Beth and John Tinker Describe Their Reactions to Supreme Court Case Success

Mary Beth and John Tinker describe their reaction to being informed about the success of the Supreme Court case for student First Amendment rights.

Mary Beth Tinker was a 13-year-old junior high school student in December 1965 when she, her brother John, 15, and their friend Christopher Eckhardt, 16, wore black armbands to school to protest the war in Vietnam. That decision led the students and their families to embark on a four-year court battle that culminated in the landmark 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision for student free speech: Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.
This interview was recorded on February 21, 2019 at Iowa PBS studios in Johnston, Iowa.



Mary Beth: Free speech is important because you have something to say. There's something you want to say, and what we wanted to say was that we were upset about the Vietnam War.

Yes, we needed our free speech rights to say that, but it wasn't first and foremost in our concerns. We didn't realize, at the time, that was going to turn out to be the important victory in the case.

John: Yeah, that's a really important point. We were protesting the war, and our victory was a First Amendment victory.

I mean, we're both happy and proud, you know, to have our name associated with that, the principle.

Now, what they call the Tinker standard. If the expression is not substantial and disruptive, and doesn't offend the rights of others, doesn't harm against the rights of others. That's called the Tinker standard.

I mean, you can imagine, we have to be proud to be part of that. But that was a First Amendment case, and the war continued then, for many years. It was sad. So when the reporter called my dormitory room at the University of Iowa and informed me that we had won at the Supreme Court, you know.

He asked how do you feel?

I said well I'm glad. That pretty much expressed. I wasn't ecstatic. I was happy, but the war was still going on. I didn't feel like we had that final sense of victory that we really wanted.

© 2019 Iowa PBS


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