Panel Discusses Historic First Amendment Case

Central Methodist University played host to an informative panel discussion on Monday, November 4, as the communications department and the Ashby-Hodge Gallery of American Art co-sponsored a 50th anniversary celebration of the Tinker v. Des Moines Supreme Court ruling.

Panelists John Tinker – lead plaintiff on the case and Fayette resident – Kelli Hopkins, and Christina Wells joined CMU communications professor and moderator Collin Brink to discuss the landmark case that established the standard for students’ rights to free speech in public schools.

Hopkins serves as the Associate Executive Director for the Missouri School Boards’ Association, while Wells is a University of Missouri law professor whose research focuses on issues of free expression and access to government information.

The panel began with a viewing of a YouTube video from the ACLU featuring Tinker and his sister, Mary Beth. The video detailed the circumstances of the case, which was decided in 1969 but revolved around an incident four years earlier.

The Tinker children and a handful of other teens at a Des Moines, Iowa, high school came to school wearing black armbands meant to “send a message of mourning for the dead in Vietnam on both sides and support for a Christmas truce.” A total of five students – including both Tinker children – were suspended for the act of peaceful protest, sparking a legal battle that went all the way to the highest court in the land.

The eventual decision by the Supreme Court came down 7-2 in favor of Tinker, and the precedence of “substantial disruption” became a standard for courts that is still used today. Justice Abe Fortas, in his majority opinion, famously wrote that “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

At the discussion, Tinker told the audience about his family’s history of civil rights engagement and involvement in the anti-war movement, while Hopkins and Wells discussed the legal standards that were established by the case and some that have changed in the 50 years since.

The discussion ended with a question and answer session with the audience, in which the panel connected the Tinker case to a number of issues of free speech still relevant in today’s society.

The event wrapped up with a presentation of the Freedom of Speech Award 2019 to Tinker.

For those unable to attend or wishing to revisit the panel discussion, a video of the event is available online.

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