When Mary Beth Tinker made her mark on American history, she was an eighth grader who loved roller skating and attending classes. 

"History is made by ordinary people," Tinker told a group of eighth-graders at O'Maley Innovation Middle School on Tuesday. 

She went on to explain how, in 1965, her brother John, Christopher Eckhart, and she were suspended from school in Des Moines, Iowa, for wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. 

The Tinkers and Eckhart continued to appeal the ruling that their attire was inappropriate for school as they believed that they were entitled to expressing themselves as American citizens.

The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the Tinkers and Eckhart in 1969 on the basis that they were not intending to evoke violence, destruction, damage or criminal activity.

Looking back at the case, Mary Beth Tinker said she believes that the discussion about a student's First Amendment rights is just as prevalent now as it was then. 

"Young people have a big influence on the world and on our history and on our country," she said. "You are living in mighty times also, with so much going on and so many big decisions that are being made about what direction our country is going in and what our priorities are."

The eighth-graders in  O'Maley's Civics and Government classes had the opportunity to video chat with the Tinkers and and Cathy Kuhlmeier, a plaintiff in another landmark case, as they study the freedom of speech and freedom of the press aspects of the First Amendment. 

Kulmeier was the editor of a student newspaper whose school principal decided to remove seven articles from an edition going to press. He did not tell the students beforehand. The Supreme Court ruled that public school curricular student newspapers are subject to a lower level of First Amendment protection than independent student newspapers.

O'Maley's social studies teachers organized to have a plaintiff for each class period where students had the opportunity to not only listen but to ask questions from those involved in Supreme Court cases such as Tinker v. Des Moines, Bethel v. Fraser, and Hazelwood v. Kulhmeier.

For teachers and students alike, to be able to speak with people who made history at a young age was exciting. 

"To be able to do this is unreal and even surreal in the sense that here are kids that now have read Tinker v. Des Moines, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, Bethel v. Fraser, and Gideon v. Wainwright," social studies teacher Hugo Smith said. 

For Ashlee Scola, 14, of Gloucester it felt like she had met a celebrity.  "It was fascinating to be able to talk with him (John Tinker) and have the answers right away instead of googling things," she said. 

When she learned that people had to fight for the freedom of speech and expression, eighth-grader Faye Grandon was baffled. 

"It is crazy to learn about how it wasn't just given to us," Grandon, 13, of Gloucester said. "It is crazy because people had to fight for these rights and so many people believe it was just handed to us."

Smith was amazed to hear students inquire about the connections between the plaintiffs' protests and those occurring in Hong Kong. 

"These are eighth graders," Smith exclaimed. "It is crazy."

As they learn more about the First Amendment, students have been able to determine how the Constitution has evolved, how it is interpreted and how it affects their lives today.

"Freedom of speech means that I can wear what I want, express myself, and say what I believe without fear of being hurt and ridiculed in any way by my peers or by who is above me," Grandon said. "It is the right to be able to stand up for yourself and no one can change that."

Staff writer Taylor Ann Bradford can be reached at 978-675-2705 or tbradford@northofboston.com.

 

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