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Students have rights, too

By Mike Hiestand Last year, the book 101 Changemakers listed the "rebels and radicals" who had most changed American history. This fall, I'm going on tour with No. 91.

By Mike Hiestand

Last year, the book 101 Changemakers listed the "rebels and radicals" who had most changed American history. This fall, I'm going on tour with No. 91.

Mary Beth Tinker was a shy 13-year-old attending Harding Middle School in Des Moines, Iowa, when she and a small group of friends were suspended from school for wearing simple black armbands to express support for peace in Vietnam. Her quiet dignity in the face of harassment and death threats was vindicated when, in 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the students had a constitutionally protected right to speak.

On Constitution Day - Sept. 17 - Mary Beth and I are launching the "Tinker Tour" - a nationwide free speech and civics education bus tour - from Independence Mall. We'll travel to 19 states and the District of Columbia to hear from young people what free speech means to them.

We'll remind them of what Justice Abe Fortas wrote, resoundingly, 44 years ago, in Tinker v. Des Moines: "School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students in school as well as out of school are 'persons' under our Constitution."

This conversation is timely, as 2013 is the 25th anniversary of the low-water mark in student rights: Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. In 1988, the Supreme Court chipped away at the Tinker level of freedom by setting limits on speech when part of a "curricular" function (in Hazelwood, a class-produced newspaper). We need a national dialogue on whether Hazelwood is educationally defensible, and students need to be part of that conversation.

In 101 Changemakers, Mary Beth is listed along with Rosa Parks, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, and Geronimo. But she is one of the most unassuming rebels you'll ever meet, a recently retired pediatric nurse whose life has been devoted to making the world a kinder place for kids.

Her case is still the foundation upon which thousands of lower court cases involving student expression are built. Most recently it helped protect students, in Pennsylvania's Easton Area Middle School, who had to fight for the right to wear breast-cancer awareness bracelets.

The court has carved out exceptions to Tinker since 1969, but the core idea, that students have a right to speak out as long as they don't unreasonably disrupt school or violate the rights of others, remains intact.

No. 91 and I will be going on the road to remind students of that. Because the world needs to hear from young people. We need them thinking, planning, and ready to help fix things.

Today's technology is powerful, and that power scares some in authority. Mary Beth changed her world by wearing a simple cloth armband, but thank goodness the tools available to students have improved. Because today's problems will take more than armbands to solve. They will require super-tools and super-users, empowered and trained to use them effectively.

Unfortunately, rather than embracing the potential of digital media and fostering an environment that encourages its constructive use, schools' reaction more often is one of fear. Speakers are disciplined, devices are banned and confiscated, and supportive teachers are fired.

Over the past two decades, as an attorney with the Student Press Law Center, I've witnessed the deterioration of student rights and courts' increasing willingness to tolerate school crackdowns on student whistle-blowers. The cost of this erosion in rights - in lost public awareness about the problems within schools, and in students' diminished eagerness to become actively engaged citizens - has been enormous.

But change is in the wind.

While principals and college presidents may once have been able to physically prevent the publication of a printed student newspaper, the new speech tools are often beyond the control of authority - as leaders in such places as Egypt and Turkey are learning.

As anyone who has seen a teen read and respond to a text in the time it takes to draw a single breath can tell you, speech is unstoppable. And it will eventually win out.

School officials are finding that digitally empowered students are blowing right past antiquated roadblocks, just as drivers once sped by the 55-m.p.h. signs the government required in the wide-open spaces of Wyoming and Montana.

It would be far better - and far more American - to teach young speakers how to respectfully and effectively use the tools they will spend the rest of their lives using. That's what educators do.

That will be one of the messages No. 91 and I hope to bring to students and teachers across the country when we depart from in front of the Liberty Bell Tuesday night. We hope you'll follow along at, and help make schools a more enriching place.