C-SPAN’s ‘Landmark Cases’ to Highlight ‘Tinker’ Ruling on Student Speech

By Mark Walsh — April 20, 2018 2 min read
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C-SPAN is continuing its second season of the series “Landmark Cases,” about historic U.S. Supreme Court decisions. And on Monday, April 23, the series will feature Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, in which the court upheld the right of secondary school students to engage in peaceful protest.

One highlight of the 90-minute live broadcast at 9 p.m. EDT on the main C-SPAN channel and C-SPAN 3 will be the studio participation of a key figure in the case—Mary Beth Tinker, who as an 8th grader in 1965 in the Des Moines, Iowa, public schools was one of several students to wear a black armband to protest the nation’s growing involvement in Vietnam.

The protest led to the landmark 7-2 decision by the Supreme Court in 1969 that upheld the students’ right to protest the Vietnam War as long as school was not substantially disrupted.

Students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” Justice Abe Fortas famously wrote in the majority opinion.

In a video segment on the “Landmark Cases” episode, John Tinker, Mary Beth’s brother who also wore a black armband during the protest, will lead C-SPAN viewers on a tour of North High School in Des Moines, where he was attending at the time.

John and Mary Beth Tinker, now in their 60s, have been First Amendment advocates for students throughout their adult lives and have carefully tended to the story of their case. As I reported in 2005 in Education Week, the Tinkers speak frequently about the case and go out of their way to help students who are studying or writing research papers about it. (Mary Beth Tinker recently wrote this commentary for Education Week about why she marched with students and others in the March for Our Lives last month and the parallels between the gun control movement and her own armband protest.)

Also in the studio with Mary Beth Tinker on Monday will be Erik S. Jaffe, a Washington lawyer and Supreme Court litigator who served as a law clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas. The conservative Thomas has written that Tinker was wrongly decided and that students in public schools have no First Amendment rights. (I don’t know whether Jaffe shares his former boss’s outlook on student rights.)

C-SPAN’s Susan Swain is the host of the 90-minute show, which will include discussions with the guests, some video segments, and viewer call-in questions. C-SPAN’s website has lots of resources about the case. There will also be a companion volume, Landmark Cases Volume 2, by veteran Supreme Court correspondent Tony Mauro, published by C-SPAN in cooperation with CQ Press.

The Tinker case is one of 12 Supreme Court cases featured in the second season of “Landmark Cases.” There is one other education case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the 1978 decision that upheld the consideration of race as one of multiple factors in college admissions but struck down racial quotas. That case will be featured on May 14.

The first season of “Landmark Cases” aired in 2015, and the only education case featured in that group was Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the high court’s historic 1954 decision declaring racial segregation in the schools to be unconstitutional.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.