Mary Beth Tinker -- a living Bill of Rights

December 23, 1997|By Linda R. Monk

THIS MONTH the Bill of Rights is 206 years old, and I got to celebrate the occasion with Mary Beth Tinker. Mary Beth who?

On Dec. 16, 1965 (coincidentally, just one day after the anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights), Mary Beth Tinker wore a black armband to school to protest the Vietnam War. Only 13 years old, she and some other students in Des Moines wanted to show their support for a proposed Christmas truce and cease-fire in Vietnam.

After lunch that day, Mary Beth was called out of algebra class to the principal's office. Told to remove her armband, she promptly obeyed, but was suspended anyway. Chris Eckhardt, a high school student, was also suspended that day (followed the next day by Mary Beth's brother John and two others).

Public mourning

Chris Eckhardt thought his punishment was particularly unjust because his school had recently permitted students to wear black armbands to mourn the death of school spirit. So what was wrong with mourning the deaths of thousands of American soldiers and Vietnamese people?

During the Christmas break from school, Mary Beth and her family felt the wrath of their community. On Christmas Eve, someone threatened to bomb the Tinker home. The host of a local radio talk show offered to pay the court costs for anyone who would shoot her father, a Methodist minister.

Even at 13, Mary Beth already knew something about the consequences of standing up for what you believe. Her father lost his church while trying to integrate it and was never assigned to another one. Her mother was fired from several jobs teaching college because of her activism in the civil rights and peace movements.

After Christmas, the suspended students returned to school, minus the armbands. But they dressed in black for the remainder of the school year, another act of symbolic speech. They also sued the school district for violating their First Amendment rights.

Student rights

But in the 1960s, it wasn't clear that students had any First Amendment rights. That is, until the Tinker case. In Tinker vs. Des Moines School District (1969), the Supreme Court ruled that students do not ''shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.''

Yet most students -- and most Americans -- have no idea who Mary Beth Tinker is. Except for a group of high school students who appear on a new award-winning documentary, ''Profiles of Freedom: A Living Bill of Rights,'' produced by Joseph Geraghty and the Close-Up Foundation. In the words of one student, ''Mary Beth rocks!''

''I'm proud if some teen-ager somewhere thinks that I rock,'' says a grown-up Mary Beth Tinker in the video. ''If there's something in my life that I've done to inspire other students to stand up for themselves and to have principles. . . I'm very proud of that.''

Mary Beth Tinker and I appeared on a panel after the premiere of ''Profiles of Freedom'' at the National Archives in Washington. The event was part of the archives' celebration of the anniversary of the Bill of Rights. An audience filled with students had lots of questions for Ms. Tinker.

Suddenly, she was asked to be an expert in constitutional law. She was queried about the Supreme Court's rulings on dozens of issues. What did she think about statehood for Puerto Rico, sexual harassment, gay marriages?

On this last issue, she took a deep breath before answering. Then she replied: ''I've been gay since I was 16 years old, and I believe in equal rights for all people.'' A stunned silence followed. After the program she told me, ''I didn't know I was going to have to come out, too.''

Of course, she didn't have to. But given the rate of suicide among gay teen-agers, she felt she could not afford to keep silent. No more than she could keep silent about Vietnam. She worries that, like her parents, her decision could cost her her job.

But she does believe that free speech has limits. She says no when her 17-year-old son wants to wear a sexually suggestive T-shirt to school. He calls her a hypocrite. She cites the Supreme Court's 1986 Fraser decision, which prohibits students -- unlike adults -- from using indecent language.

Everyday citizens like Mary Beth Tinker play the most important role in enforcing the Bill of Rights. Not judges, not lawyers, but citizens. During World War II, the great judge Learned Hand said it this way: ''Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.''

I had the privilege of being with Mary Beth Tinker when she saw the Bill of Rights for the very first time. As she studied the document preserved under glass, I looked at her and saw the living Bill of Rights.

Linda R. Monk is the author of ''The Bill of Rights: A User's Guide,'' which won the American Bar Association's Gavel Award. She writes from Alexandria, Va.

Pub Date: 12/23/97

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