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Thursday, April 10, 2014 12:01 am

Free-speech icon to speak at UIS

John and Mary Beth Tinker at the time of their 1965 protests.


Nearly 50 years ago, when Des Moines, Iowa, teenager John Tinker and his sister, Mary Beth, took a stand against the Vietnam War, they had no idea they were helping to create a legal precedent that would echo through free speech jurisprudence for decades to come.

“We just came to see the war as a great evil,” recalls John Tinker, who will be speaking at University of Illinois Springfield on Monday, April 14. After John attended an anti-war march on Washington over Thanksgiving of 1965, he and Mary Beth, then aged 15 and 13, decided to wear armbands to their respective schools as a way of protesting the war. “The principals heard about our plan to wear the armbands and they had a meeting and forbade the wearing of them,” says Tinker. “Those of us who wore armbands anyway got suspended and then we sued the school district for the First Amendment right to free speech.”

The resultant case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, eventually worked its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the Tinkers prevailed in a seven-to-two decision in February 1969. It has become a cornerstone of First Amendment law, pertaining most specifically to cases where school administrators attempt to silence student self-expression. “Nearly every day it seems there is some case somewhere that is referring back to our case,” Tinker says. (For current listing of citations, visit Tinker’s website, schema-root.org/tinker. )  

For years, John Tinker was determined to keep the landmark case from affecting his day-to-day life.  “I have done a number of jobs,” he says, “I drove a city bus, I worked on a shrimp boat down in Texas and eventually I was the chief engineer at a small radio station in Iowa.” In the late 1980s he became involved in humanitarian efforts in Nicaragua which unexpectedly led him to work in the software field. “My real interests were not in a career,” he says, “and so about 13 years ago, I began working on schema-root.org which now has 17,253 pages of current news. So that’s been my main project.”

 Tinker currently makes his home in a former public school in Fayette, Mo., which affords a lot of room to spread out. (“We have 12 classrooms and a gymnasium.”) In addition to his website, he works with students each year on National History Day projects and every few months he is asked to give presentations throughout the country on his legendary court case, which never seems to go out of style. “The authorities are almost continually trying to push the limits back and try to give the students less actual freedom than would make sense to me,” he observes with no small amount of resigned bemusement. “Freedom for the individual, I think, in history, is a continual effort.”

 John Tinker will speak at 3 p.m. Monday, April 14, at the UIS Public Affairs Center, One University Plaza. For more information call 217-206-6073.

Contact Scott Faingold at sfaingold@illinoistimes.com.


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