Five years ago, I saw Mary Beth Tinker speak at the First Amendment Symposium in Indianapolis as part of her Tinker Tour, and my little sophomore heart almost exploded. I was just getting my start in journalism, and I remember how excited and nervous I was to go speak to her afterward.
To me, she was the matriarch of free speech. She was the first person I met who I felt was a celebrity. Years later, even as a junior at Ball State University, I still have my novelty black armband hanging on my bedroom wall with her signature and the words “To Jordan - who keeps the free press alive!” on it.
My appreciation for Mary Beth has continued over the years as I work toward a degree in journalism education. I have imagined teaching my future students about the famous Tinker vs. Des Moines case and the precedent it set in journalism classes and student publications everywhere since 1969. The Tinker case helped determine the standards of First Amendment rights in public schools and even 50 years later, it is referenced in Supreme Court cases regarding free speech and self-expression.
Mary Beth is the keynote speaker at this year’s High School Journalism J-Day on March 25. Her remarks come on the 50th anniversary of the Department of Journalism and the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines. Tinker, a free speech advocate, will speak at 8:30 a.m. in Emens Auditorium about her experience as an eighth-grader who defended her First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969, resulting in the landmark ruling that neither teachers nor students "shed their constitutional rights ... at the schoolhouse gate."
When my boss at Journalism Workshops said she was looking for someone, I instantly recalled my memorable interaction with Mary Beth five years ago, and I was giddy as I pitched her as our keynote speaker. It didn’t take long for our entire office to agree that she’d be a perfect fit with our event’s theme “Retro. Relevant” if we could get her to come. I reached out to her and personally invited her to talk about her experience in front of 1,000 middle and high school students. She accepted, and I jumped straight out of my chair when I read her response. Months later, I still get butterflies every time I see her name in my email inbox.
Having Mary Beth Tinker as our distinguished speaker this year is a tribute to many different celebrations. It’s a reminder that students “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” but also that you can be your own personal advocate.
In just a few short years, I will have the opportunity to teach my students the important role that ethics play in journalism. Rather than teaching straight from the textbook about landmark cases such as the Tinker case, and I will have this amazing experience to share with them, along with my novelty black armband.