Mary Beth Tinker was an eighth-grader in Des Moines, Iowa, in December 1965 when she and other students who felt deeply about the war in Vietnam decided to wear black armbands to class to signal their support for a truce. School officials learned of the plan, which also involved a day of fasting, and decided to suspend any student who showed up wearing an armband and refused to remove it.
Mary Beth, her brother John, 15, and another student, Christopher Eckhardt, wore armbands anyway. All were sent home until they would return sans armband. The students did not come back until after their planned period of protest had passed, after the New Year’s holiday.
The students’ parents sought a court injunction but were denied. Their case, argued after the fact by the American Civil Liberties Union, made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court and became the basis for a 1969 decision clarifying a position that had already been set out by the court: students don’t forfeit their First Amendment rights when they walk onto campus. Justice Abe Fortas, a Tennessean appointed to the court by President Lyndon Johnson, captured the sentiment in a statement often cited since: “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
One can only imagine what Fortas would have to say about the events at Andover High School last Tuesday.
In protest over the slightly more mundane matter of a popular hockey coach not being brought back for the next season, a couple hundred students left class and walked onto a field in front of the school, where they could be spotted by passing traffic on Shawsheen Road. A news reporter speaking with one of the students was kicked off campus, prompting four seniors on the hockey team to cross the two-lane road to speak to the media.
Three of those students were suspended for the day from practicing or playing sports. The fourth, who doesn’t play a spring sport, was slapped with two detentions. True, school administrators did not stop the walkout, if that was even possible. But by punishing students whom they’d put in the position of walking off campus to talk to the media, administrators moved to silence anyone else who might think of giving voice to their protest, thus exercising their First Amendment rights.
Would that Andover’s school administrators were unique. They’re not. Last March, administrators at North Andover High School put their thumb on a student protest over the school’s treatment of victims of sexual assault. By taking control of the demonstration and isolating it to a campus courtyard, officials sought to keep the protesting students from being seen or heard by the new media. By curbing students’ ability to express themselves to the outside world, school leaders were clearly seeking to remove the oxygen from their demonstration.
Just as area school leaders aren’t alone in limiting students’ free expression, the actions of administrators are also inconsistent. A year ago, thousands of high school students across the country, including those in the Merrimack Valley and North Shore, participated in walkouts calling for stricter gun control in light of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Those events were well scripted and accommodated by school officials. Many allowed the media on campus to at least photograph the events, if not speak with students directly.
In Andover, media weren’t allowed in the high school, but students were given 40 minutes to gather in the cafeteria to express themselves. Afterward Superintendent Sheldon Berman and High School Principal Philip Conrad issued a joint statement, which said in part, “I am proud of our students for their conscientious approach to this issue and for their desire to share their feelings and concerns in an open forum.”
Endorsing the First Amendment, it seems, is far easier when school administrators are sympathetic with the cause than when their own decisions are the targets of protest. But free speech isn’t always so convenient. The true test of school leaders is ensuring their students’ rights, guaranteed to them by the Constitution, when doing so isn’t comfortable.
Armbands are quaint compared to walkouts. Telling one’s story to the press is far different than wearing your politics on your sleeve. Fortas, who died in 1982 at age 71, would surely blanch if he saw the modern high school and modern students’ expressions of themselves.
But the legal principle he expressed 50 years ago endures, just as the ideals of the First Amendment have not changed.
U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969): www.loc.gov/item/usrep393503/.