When it came to choosing a topic for his entry in C-SPAN’s national student documentary contest, Long Reach High School sophomore Eli Kuperman thought about showing the ways the Constitution related to his life, settling on a provision that he said allows “me to be me”— freedom of speech.
“The First Amendment encompasses a lot of the rights to be your own person,” Eli said.
Eli’s entry, focusing on U.S. Supreme Court cases that paved the way for student free speech in schools, was one of 150 honored by the cable television public affairs channel, which received 2,985 middle- and high-school student contest submissions.
His documentary included the landmark case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District that defined the constitutional rights of public school students.
In an assembly at the Columbia school this morning to honor his work, Eli received a proclamation from the County Council, citations from Maryland’s governor and U.S. senators — and a surprise guest.
Mary Beth Tinker, one of the student petitioners from the Supreme Court case, made an appearance.
Tinker, who was 13 when she and her siblings and a friend chose to wear black armbands to school in opposition to the Vietnam War, is now a freedom of speech advocate.
“I love to see young people who are learning about their rights and using them. It’s better for everyone when young people have input,” Tinker said. “It’s a good way of life to speak up.”
Tinker’s case, which will mark its 50th anniversary next year, is now a mainstay in many government and journalism classes across the country.
Despite its inclusion in curriculums, Tinker said student speech is not something that should be taken for granted today. She said she’s been “heartened” by the use of student speech in recent months as students nationally have rallied in the wake of the deadly Parkland, Fla., school shooting for an end to gun violence. Long Reach was one of 34 schools in Howard County to have students participate in the March 24 National School Walkout to call for stricter gun laws.
“I’ve seen what happens when young people don’t have a voice and that’s why I travel now to make sure that students know their rights and use them to change their lives,” she said. "It’s a constant struggle to promote the idea that young people should have a say and need rights in order to do that.”
Tinker encouraged the ninth- and tenth-graders at the assembly to use their voices to bring attention to issues they’re passionate about, even if they receive criticism or pushback.
“We can’t change anything without freedom of speech,” she told students. “I found out slowly that these small things that you do make a big difference. We were just speaking up for peace, and [threats] are part of the risk when you use your free speech rights, but it’s so worth it.”
Long Reach teacher Jody Zepp assigned the project to her 52 Advanced Placement U.S. government students, because of the way she said it allows students to “live and breathe the impact of government on their lives.”
Zepp said she was impressed by Eli’s topic choice and focus on cases that “empowered the promise of free speech.”
As a result of his work, Eli, 15, said he’s interested in becoming a lawyer to “defend those who can’t defend themselves.”
“I want students to believe that no matter what school you’re in, you’re still a person and can still make a difference,” he said. “When you’re passionate about something, whether it’s a documentary or the Tinker case, there’s no stopping you.”