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'Tinker Tour' stops in Utah to promote free speech, civic engagement

Published March 20, 2014 10:19 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Mary Beth Tinker never thought a teenage act of defiance would make history and set U.S. legal precedent.

But 45 years later, she's still known as the 13-year-old Iowa eighth-grader who fought for public school students' First Amendment rights and won.

She and fellow students — prevented from wearing black armbands to school to mourn soldiers killed on both sides of the Vietnam War — took their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The landmark 1969 Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District decision, in which the court famously held that individuals "do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate," has become the standard by which all other student First Amendment cases are judged.

Tinker has spent much of the past year touring the nation to advocate for free speech and civic engagement that celebrates the First Amendment.

"I had no idea my experiences would lead in this direction," she said in an interview. "But we all must take our experiences and the resources we have in life and use them for the betterment of our world."

Tinker will be in Salt Lake City on March 29 for a "Tinker Tour" stop sponsored by the law firms of Jones Waldo Holbrook & McDonough and Parr Brown Gee & Loveless. She will present at the Society of Professional Journalists Region 9 conference planned that day at Brigham Young University's Salt Lake Center.

The conference is open to anyone interested in journalism and willing to pay the $25 registration fee.

In addition to Tinker, Tom Zoellner, a former Salt Lake Tribune reporter and author of five books including the newly released "Train," will present on the topic: "Finding the importance in big-topic stories."

A number of Tribunestaffers also will participate in panel discussions about the National Security Agency Utah Data Center, cameras in the courtroom and the nationwide legal battle over same-sex marriage.

You can register and find out more information here.

Tinker is an ideal speaker for a gathering of journalists because the First Amendment, of course, is our guiding principle. Now as much as ever, we worry about attempts to whittle away at a fundamental right.

Like Tinker, we want young people to understand and treasure the First Amendment and embrace the responsibility that accompanies the privilege.

Tinker can help draw attention to the fact that their own free-speech rights are being challenged every day.

The Tinker Tour, for example, makes note of modern-day attempts to restrict students' use of social media and other digital communications tools in an effort to combat cyberbullying and sexting.

In the past four years, according to the tour, three federal appellate courts have determined the Tinker standard is equally applicable to students' speech on off-campus social-networking pages as to speech during school.

Tinker, who is now a pediatric nurse, said her travels have acquainted her with hundreds of young people who are speaking out to make a difference. She cites Rising Tide, a group in the Northwest concerned about pollution caused by particulate matter emitted by coal trains.

She said young people on both sides of the issue are speaking out about same-sex marriage. In Washington, D.C., youths are actively involved in efforts to make their city the nation's 51st state.

"It's their world. Young people need to take stands and they need to know their rights to do that," she said. "We need to encourage them to use those rights with respect and care."

Otherwise, "our society is cheated out of their creativity and energy and ideas," Tinker said. "Their input can be helpful to our democracy."

Just as Tinker's input has been.

Lisa Carricaburu is managing editor. Contact her at lisac@sltrib.com or on Twitter: @lcarricaburu. —

SPJ Region 9 Conference

Journalists from Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming will gather in Salt Lake City on March 28-29 at The Salt Lake Tribune and BYU's Salt Lake Center for a regional conference. The cost is $25. For a full schedule or to register, visit http://utahspj.com/?p=186.