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Student Rights Advocate Visits Hopi High School Journalism Students
by Stan Bindell - The Navajo-Hopi Observer
credits: photos by Stan Bindell - The Navajo-Hopi Observer

POLACCA, AZ - A student at a Phoenix high school had an Ibuprofen in her pocket so the school decided to strip-search her. She had a feeling that this violated her rights, but she didn't know for sure, so she let them continue the search.

That's why Mary Beth Tinker wants students to know their rights. Tinker is touring the country now to advocate for students rights, especially First Amendment rights.

"You can't stand up for your rights if you don't know your rights," she said.

Tinker spoke to journalism and government students at Hopi High April 7.

Tinker was at the center of a First Amendment case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court and is now included in many journalism and government textbooks. In the 1960s, when Tinker was a junior high student, she wore an armband to school. Her school wanted to suspend her and punish her. She took the case to court and the court ruled that she was right and did not allow the school to punish her. Recently, she returned to the school where they honored her by naming a locker after her.

The case became known as Tinker vs. DesMoines School District. The Tim Harrower Inside Reporting textbook states the case means that school administrators must respect students' rights. Moreover, that free expression, whether in speech or print, must be allowed provided it doesn't disrupt the school or invade the rights of others.

"Students and teachers do not leave their rights at the school door," Tinker said.

For example, if a school cancels a class, the students can petition to have the class reinstated.

Tinker, who is a nurse when she's not touring the country for students, said the First Amendment also applies to students and gives them the right to free speech.

"Children are standing up and speaking for a better world," she said.

Tinker said there is a history of students getting into trouble for standing up for their rights including cases of segregation where the Ku Klux Klan made the complainers disappears.

"There's always the chance you can get in trouble, but in our country there is a tradition of dissent which helps us progress so we can become a more fair and just country," she said.

Tinker points to America having a history of injustice and inequality. There was a time when Virginia and several other states didn't allow interracial marriages. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Virginia was wrong and that the law was unconstitutional. Tinker said states have passed many laws that were unconstitutional. She credits the American Civil Liberties Union with standing up for the Bill of Rights.

She points to the Jim Crow laws, which separated races, as also being unconstitutional.

Frank LoMonte, president of the Student Press Law Center, joined Tinker for the Hopi High visit. He said students often ask schools for more strict enforcement of some school rules.

"Schools can give students more leeway for issues such as liberalized dress codes," he said.

Tinker said the point is that students should have some say on the rules that impact them.

"The Tinker tour encourages students to speak up on their lives," she said. "In a democracy, everyone should have a say including kids."

For example, if students want more grapes in the cafeteria they can petition for more grapes.

The Tinker Tour began on Constitution Day on Sept. 17 as they have visited about 80 schools and spoken to about 30,000 students, teachers and administrators.

"We've had a very positive response. There has been a lot of enthusiasm for our message," Tinker said.

LoMonte said generalizations couldn't be made about administrators because several of the administrators responded positively.

Tinker said she was happy to bring her message to Hopi High School because she was raised in Iowa where they didn't know much about native culture.

"Native Americans are part of our history. Our tour is about rights and Native American rights are a large part of that. We wanted to highlight Native American rights," she said.

Tinker said some native students in Colorado were speaking up about environmental issues. She praised the Hopi High news video class for producing a video about sexual abuse on the reservation.

LoMonte said Native American history in the U.S. is a case of the government overreaching.

"The First Amendment is meant to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority," he said.

Aside from using the First Amendment, Tinker said students should speak out about their rights concerning clean air, clean water, safe places to live, safe schools, respect in their lives and fair living wages.

"As a nurse, I want you to think of all of those because I want you to be healthy and strong," she said.

LoMonte said students are part of the school and community so they should have the right to speak out about clean water, women's rights and other issues.

Tinker added social media has made everybody a publisher so people are deciding the rights of social media.

LoMonte said since social media has made everybody a publisher that everybody needs to know his or her legal rights.

Tinker said those with concerns can contact her at or the Student Press Law Center at or contact the ACLU.

According to LoMonte, SPLC offers a free service to answer student questions and attempts to solve the problems. He noted one case where a college student was kicked out because she had something unprofessional on her Facebook.

"We're happy to take calls. Mostly to educate you so you can educate your school," he said. "If you can say 'this is wrong; let me tell you why. well, that's empowerment."

LoMonte emphasized that those standing up don't have to be superheroes.

"They can be 13 year old girls," he said. "It just takes people pushing forward."

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