Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Tinker discusses 1st Amendment student rights

Fifty years after the landmark Supreme Court case that ruled in favor of students’ First Amendment rights, Mary Beth Tinker stopped at The University of Alabama to share her story and speak about the importance of the First Amendment to students. Her visit to campus was part of the “Tinker Tour,” which is sponsored by the Student Press Law Center. Tinker spoke to a large group of middle school, high school and college students Tuesday morning in the Ferguson Center Theater before heading to Birmingham to speak to students at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute that afternoon. In Birmingham, Tinker took the time to answer some questions for The Crimson White.

The Crimson White: Tell me about the Tinker Tour.

Tinker: The Tinker Tour was an idea we came up with last year when we decided civic education was not getting a fair shake in our culture right now. Students are not getting a solid civic education in the basic workings in democracy. We have a lot of issues in our country very much like the 1960s. It’s a very important time in our history – we’re seeing growing equality issues, like racial issues and war. We have huge expenditures on war that is being taken away from schools. All of these things are policies that students are being affected by but don’t have a say in them. Don’t you think you should have a say in the policies that affect your life? In Brazil, they have child-friendly school boards where students would decide how money would be spent in their community. I think we should do that again. Even with small things like school-dress policies, you have to abide by them, so you should have a say. With the air getting [polluted], you’re going to be dragging inhalers around like my patient, but you don’t have any say in that. Is that fair? I also think the voting age should be lowered.

When did you start the tours?

We kicked off [on the anniversary] of the Birmingham bombing, the day the Birmingham church was bombed to punish those kids from the Children’s Crusade. It was Sept. 15, exactly 50 years ago. That was the day we gathered in Philadelphia to start the Tinker Tour. Our official kickoff was on Constitution Day because we thought young kids should have a voice in the Constitution, and that is our continuing message to this day. Young voices shouldn’t fail to express themselves.

Why focus on college students as well as high schoolers?

All young people have these great qualities that take democracy forward, throughout history. They have energy, creativity, a sense of fairness and the important one: a desire for action.

Why did you decide to come to The University of Alabama?

I came to UA because I wanted to go to some spots in the South. Alabama has some amazing history, and it’s been so transformative. So much has happened here. You even had this recent thing with your sororities where people reported on [this] discrimination – that was developing on our way here. I was very honored to come to UA, and to come to Birmingham.

Why do you include music in your talks?

I’m crazy! I love to sing, and it’s kind of like the civil rights movement. A lot of power of it came from this sense of joy, this love of music. I think all social change should have some form of art in it, be it theatre or music or printed and visual art. Even journalism is an art. I just love all kinds of music, and it makes it fun. Standing up for what you believe in should be fun.

What types of speeches do you usually give?

I always give talks about young people throughout history who have spoken up, whether it’s for justice in the factories or in the mines or [a] young homeless teenage runaway like Ben Franklin, who had the idea that we ought to all have our own ideas and be able to express them. I like to tell stories about young people in history who have made a difference. Sometimes I talk about Isabella, a little slave girl in New York who grew up to be Sojourner Truth. I tell about little Fred, who figured out he could learn to read even though he was a slave, and he grew up to be one of the greatest orators in the world, named Frederick Douglass. And at seven years old he figured out how to read after his master told his wife to never let Fred [learn] how to read. And that’s the creativity and ingenuity of young people. We need that to make things more democratic and [get] more people be involved.

How has the Tinker standard changed since your court case?

The rights of students have been cut back drastically since the Tinker decision. They were cut back by Bethel v. Fraser in 1986, that said students can’t have speech that is lewd and obscene, and that’s how they took speech in that case. Then Hazelwood was major in 1988, which said school-sponsored speech could be censored, including school papers. We’re actually giving out bracelets today that say “cure Hazelwood.” There are so many educators who teach journalism who have tried to reverse that decision, like the Journalism Education Association, because they know it’s not education. Students should have freedom to write good, quality articles in their newspaper without having to fear being checked by their principal.

Why is it important for young people to know their rights?

Just like everyone in our country, if you don’t know your rights, you can’t stand up for them and use them. For example, sometimes I ask students if it would be okay for students to strip search you because they claim you have meds you don’t have, or contraband, and a lot of students don’t know. It’s like muscle. If you don’t use them, you lose them.

What is one piece of advice you would give students today?

Find something you feel strongly about and feel passionate about. Join with others and take action on that issue. When you do, life is meaningful, and you [meet] interesting people. It’s even fun. The world needs your voice, your ideas, your creativity, and you can give yourself a good quality of life by speaking up and sharing.

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