Tinker brings First Amendment advocacy tour to South Carolina

Nearly 50 years after appealing to the Supreme Court in the groundbreaking 1969 First Amendment case Tinker v. Des Moines, Mary Beth Tinker shared her story in the historically conservative state of South Carolina.

“I honestly didn’t see that much difference between the students in South Carolina and the students we talked to elsewhere,” said Mike Hiestand, attorney for the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) and Tinker’s accompanying speaker on the tour. “They seemed to have many of the same concerns and issues as most of the students we’ve met across the country.”

Tinker’s ideas about students’ First Amendment rights were considered progressive during the time of the case. The case began in 1965 when Tinker, her brother John and their friend Christopher Eckhardt wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War and demonstrate their support of Robert Kennedy’s request for a Christmas truce. All three students were taken out of class and asked to remove the bands by their principal. Even after doing so, they were punished with a suspension. Four years and two lower federal court hearings later, the Supreme Court heard the students’ case and favored their side with a 7-2 ruling.

Tinker, a pediatric nurse by profession, decided she wanted to share her passion and experience with First Amendment rights with students across the country. Mike Hiestand, an attorney with the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), joined her and together they planned the stops for the Tinker Tour. After collaborating with Karen Flowers, director of the South Carolina Scholastic Press Association, they added South Carolina’s flagship university, the University of South Carolina, to their list. The Tinker Tour bus stopped in front of USC’s student union for SCSPA’s Oct. 7 fall conference.

“Though the SCSPA conference was the only stop we made in South Carolina, we were lucky to meet lots of students there from all around the region,” said Tinker. “They were such an enthusiastic and energetic crowd! I really loved how students spoke up about things they care about, like being able to express themselves in the news media.”

Tinker was the keynote speaker for the conference, but both she and Hiestand taught sessions throughout the day. They also held an exclusive press conference for select reporters from each high school’s publication staff. More than 600 middle and high school students and advisers as well as five students from USC’s journalism school attended her address.

“It’s not very often that you get to meet someone responsible for actually changing the world,” said Liz McCarthy, internal communications coordinator for USC. “Mary Beth Tinker changed America’s First Amendment law. She’s not just a name in a textbook. When the Tinker Tour came to USC, South Carolina students were able to meet the person behind a legal case that restored their basic rights.”