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Mary Beth Tinker talks student rights at Westminster High

Mary Beth Tinker grew up watching young people peacefully protest during the civil rights movement, but said she never imagined being brave enough to do the same.
"I knew I wasn't like that," she said. "I was shy."
But that all changed in 1965, when Tinker, a 13-year-old at the time, and a group of students in Des Moines, Iowa, made history by wearing black armbands to school to mourn the casualties in Vietnam, protest the war and support Robert F. Kennedy's call for a Christmas truce.
Tinker visited Westminster High School Friday as part of her national tour to promote youth voices and First Amendment rights. The school's Issues in American Society and Law, Citizenship and Society classes got to attend her talk in the school's auditorium.
During the talk, Tinker explained how she and the other students, including her brother, John, were suspended because wearing armbands was prohibited. The case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of First Amendment rights for students.
"It was a great victory for students everywhere," she said.
The decision in the case, known as Tinker v. Des Moines, guarantees the right of free speech for students. This ruling continues to be cited in nearly every student First Amendment case in addition to American civics and history textbooks.
Westminster High School students put together a video about their views on the rights of students and thanking Tinker for standing up for her beliefs. The students said they think young people are often scared to speak up against authority because they are afraid of the consequences, and they don't realize the rights that they have.
Tinker told the audience that young people have imagination and their brains are geared toward action, which is why they have always been a big part of moving the world forward.
"You make us better by not accepting the way things are now," she said. "You can imagine a better world."
The world has always benefited from hearing the voices of young people, Tinker said.
"Thank you, Nelson Mandela, and the young people in South Africa who turned that country around," she said.
Tinker asked students to name their First Amendment rights, and those who answered got to hold a corresponding T-shirt. Volunteers held shirts that read "I speak" for freedom of speech, "I believe" for freedom of religion, "I write" for freedom of the press, "I gather" for freedom to assemble and "I protest" for freedom to petition.
She explained that sometimes rights, especially for children, can be modified or limited to protect others. That doesn't mean you should accept things you believe are wrong, Tinker said.
"If you see something go on that you don't think is right or fair, you have the right to do something about it," she said.
Junior Romesa Mustafa was surprised to learn that Tinker was shy when she wore the armband to school.
"I thought she was outgoing," she said.
Emily Allred, another junior, said she thought Tinker's talk was empowering. She believes the whole school, not just social studies classes that are studying the First Amendment, should have been permitted to see her talk.
"It would have been good for everyone to hear it," she said.
The high schooler also couldn't believe so many people are unaware of their First Amendment rights.
"You should know what you're free to do," she said.
Though she would be scared to, it makes her want to stand up for her rights as a student, particularly on issues concerning hall monitors confiscating cellphones, Allred said. During the question-and-answer portion of the event, another student brought up being required to stand up during the Pledge of Allegiance.
Carol Richardson, law and civics teacher at Westminster High School, said she's piloting a law class this year at the school that will be introduced at the rest of the county high schools next school year. During her research for the class, she came across Tinker and begged her to visit.
"We want [students] to be knowledgeable and be able to advocate change," Richardson said. "She embodies what I've always tried to teach my students."
Every student in the state must be taught about the court case Tinker v. Des Moines, which has set the standard for students having the right to a safe and secure learning environment, Richardson said.
Tinker said rights are like muscles - if you don't use them, you lose them. She's hoping her talk inspires both students and teachers.
"When the world is better for kids, it's better for everybody," she said.

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