from wearing freedom buttons to advocate for voting rights and to protest the murders of civil
rights workers.7 The Court found no evidence that the buttons caused a substantial disruption in
the school environment.8
Contrary to the ruling in the Fifth Circuit, the federal district court in Tinker ruled that the
school officials acted out of a reasonable fear that wearing armbands would create a disruption at
school.9 With a division in the Circuits, the issue then reached the Supreme Court on whether the
regulationin Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Districtviolated the
constitutional rights of students.10
The Tinker family went to the Supreme Court on November 12, 1968 to hear the oral
argument in the case (except John, who missed the court proceedings as he fell asleep in the airport
near his college!). The Court found no evidence that the students’ symbolic speech materially and
substantially interfered with the requirement of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school
or that it collided with the rights of others.11 In the opinion issued the next year, the Court said,
referring to the wearing of armbands to protest the Nation’s involvement in Vietnam that was
singled out for prohibition, “In our system, students may not be regarded as closed-circuit
recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate.”12
The family had moved to St. Louis by the time the Supreme Court announced its decision
upholding the students’ constitutional rights to freedom of expression in the school setting.13 When
the decision was announced on February 24, 1969, Mary Beth was a junior in high school. When
she came home from school, reporters were at her house and calling for interviews. When they
came to her school, she was surprised and felt shy when they wanted to talk to her, or take
photographs of her in chemistry class. She now says that she “had no idea” of the significance of
the ruling at the time.
Following high school, Mary Beth hesitated about going into academics and going to
college because she saw her mother’s career as a psychologist hurt because of her involvement in
fostering racial equality and peace. Mary Beth became, instead, a piano technician, tuning and
repairing pianos, a work she enjoyed. Years later, she decided to become a nurse and was surprised
to see the Tinker case cited in her nursing textbook. Slowly, she began to realize that she had been
a plaintiff in a landmark Supreme Court case and to understand how important that case is. She
went on to obtain dual masters’ degrees in nursing and public health and worked for many years
as a pediatric and emergency room nurse, and also as a Nurse Practitioner.
Her work as a nurse brought her into contact with many children who do not get what they
need from our society because of poverty and poor life prospects. Her experience in this landmark
case led her to start “The Tinker Tour” to share with young people how important it is that they
use their voices and their First Amendment rights, respectfully and courageously, to safeguard the
rights guaranteed under the Constitution for all its citizens. And she wants adults to listen to and
respect children’s voices. Young people should know that their contribution does not have to be
an overwhelming project, she says. It can be something small. But young people will have a good
life when they speak up and join with others for what they care about. That is Mary Beth’s message,
and it continues to resonate with students today.
7 Burnside v. Byars, 363 F.2d 744, 748-49 (5th Cir. 1966).
8 Id. at 748.
9 Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 258 F.Supp. 971, 973 (S.D. Iowa 1966), rev’d, 393 U.S. 503.
10 Tinker, 393 U.S. 503.
11 Id. at 508.
12 Id. at 511.