Last Wednesday, John and Mary Beth Tinker visited Drake University as the last stop on their 50th anniversary tour of the Tinker v. Des Moines Supreme Court case. The sibling duo held a panel in the Cowles Library about freedom of speech.
They welcomed students and other members of the Drake community to participate, answered questions and asked audience members questions of their own, making sure that audience members got a chance to speak about why free speech was important to them. The Tinkers have been advocates for the rights of free speech since their case at the Supreme Court in 1965. It was in the middle of the Vietnam War and America was still heavily involved. The Tinker’s were horrified by the violence they saw on TV, and became a part of the peace movement.
“It really came from our heart,” Mary Beth Tinker said. “We saw the gap between peace in our lives and the violence on TV, and we decided to speak up about that.”
The two siblings wore black armbands at school to protest the Vietnam War. The administration would not allow it and suspended them from school until they agreed not to wear the armbands. The Tinkers took their case all the way to the Supreme Court fight for their freedom of speech right as stated in the First Amendment of the Constitution. They won the case 7-2, and Tinker v Des Moines has since become a decision that defined First Amendment rights of students in public schools.
When students and other members of the Drake community praised the Tinkers for their activism, they accepted the compliments with grace, insisting their part in 1965 was not the singular defining moment from the peace protest.
“We weren’t isolated, we weren’t knights in shining armor,” John Tinker said. “We were part of a movement.”
One topic the students from Drake wanted to discuss with the Tinkers was hate speech, since Drake had issues with racist notes and robocalls last semester. When the idea of defining “free speech zones” by law came up, College Republicans President Kollin Crompton was quick to speak up.
“When we start defining free speech zones, it makes me very nervous,” Crompton said. “It makes me think the our right ends and where it begins.”
The Tinkers stressed that while it might be difficult legally to limit hate speech while protecting everyone’s rights to free speech, our culture can do a lot more to protect minorities from assaulting and damaging words.
“The law is going to put limits on what we can say, the culture will tell us what we should say,” John Tinker said.
Earlier in the day, the Tinkers paid a visit to Drake’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and had a more intimate discussion with aspiring journalists. The siblings told the gathered students that they would face ethical dilemmas in practically any job they would have, and their life was always going to be more than their job. They encouraged students to “bring humanity” to whatever job they will have in the future.
To wrap up the discussion, Mary Beth Tinker said “Think of your integrity and ethics, and what you will be willing to sacrifice.”