In 1965, when Mary Beth Tinker was 13 years old, she wore a black armband to her junior high school to protest the Vietnam War. The school promptly suspended her, but her protest eventually led to a landmark Supreme Court case: Tinker v. Des Moines. In their verdict, the court vindicated Tinker by saying students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The 7-2 ruling ushered in a new era of free speech rights for students. First Amendment advocates basked in the glow of the Tinker decision for decades.
However, the Internet has since complicated the meaning of the ruling, and those same advocates now worry students’ rights to freedom of speech are again under attack. Schools regularly punish students for online comments, even if those comments are made away from school property and after school hours. Although some administrators target cyber-bullies, others punish students whose only offense is posting an online comment that the school doesn’t like.
The situation has inspired Tinker herself to tour the nation’s schools to revive student speech rights, nearly 50 years after her famous protest.