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CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Emmaus High School students Savannah Pukanecz, of Emmaus, and Kevin Rodgers, of Lower Macungie Township, talk with Mary Beth Tinker at the 2013 Constitution Day event at Independence Mall in Philadelphia. The event took place Sept. 17. Mary Beth Tinker and her brother, John, were pivotal in the Supreme Court case guaranteeing First Amendment rights to students. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Emmaus High School students Savannah Pukanecz, of Emmaus, and Kevin Rodgers, of Lower Macungie Township, talk with Mary Beth Tinker at the 2013 Constitution Day event at Independence Mall in Philadelphia. The event took place Sept. 17. Mary Beth Tinker and her brother, John, were pivotal in the Supreme Court case guaranteeing First Amendment rights to students.

'It was like we were meeting a piece of history'

Wednesday, October 2, 2013 by APRIL PETERSON apeterson@tnonline.com in Local News

EHS journalism students meet the Tinker siblings who won the definitive student free speech case before the Supreme Court in 1969

It is not every day that someone walks out of the pages of a book, much less a law book, but such things can happen on extraordinary days.

Several Emmaus High School journalism students learned this first- hand last month when they met Mary Beth Tinker, an icon of student First Amendment rights on no less than Constitution Day in Philadelphia, of all auspicious places.

"It was surreal," Savannah Pukanecz, a senior at EHS and opinion editor for the high school newspaper "The Stinger", said.

"It was like we were meeting a piece of history. It was really cool."

Tinker was among the featured speakers Sept. 17 at the 2013 Constitution Day event at the National Constitution Center on Independence Mall. This year's Constitution Day event was a stop on Tinker's national tour billed as the Tinker Tour and promoting activism around student free speech rights. On select stops Tinker will be joined by her brother John, another iconic figure in free speech rights for students. The tour schedule includes visits to colleges, middle and high schools.

"How many times are you going to meet the person whose name is on a [Supreme] Court case?" Maura Benner, a junior at EHS and photo editor for The Stinger, said.

Benner and Pukanecz were among 20 advanced journalism students and staff members of the school newspaper, who made the trip, said Denise Reaman, who teaches journalism and ninth grade English.

"It was a once in a lifetime opportunity," Reaman said.

J.F. Pirro, who teaches 10th grade English and a former adviser to The Stinger, urged Reaman to take the students to hear Tinker speak and joined the group for the trip. Pirro calls Tinker the reigning Miss America of student free speech rights.

"She continues to be a champion of student expression," Pirro said.

According to the book titled, "May it Please the Court" (1993), a companion compendium to recordings of Supreme Court arguments, the case Tinker v. Des Moines grew out of a protest against the Vietnam War.

Mary Beth Tinker, 13, an eighth grader, her brother, John, 15, a high school junior, and Christopher Eckhardt, 16, a 10th grader, along with students from other public schools in Des Moines, decided to wear black armbands to school in support of a holiday truce in December 1965 and to mourn the deaths of those who died in the Vietnam conflict. When word of the planned protest leaked, school administrators fasttracked a policy prohibiting students from wearing the armbands. Students who wore the armbands faced possible suspension.

Administrators saw the policy as a precautionary measure against the chance such a protest could become unruly. The Tinkers challenged the school policy as a violation of the First Amendment and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

The Court's 7-2 ruling guaranteed public school students a right to symbolic, nondisruptive political expression.

Writing for the majority, Justice Abe Fortas, in the most celebrated language from the decision, noted students and teachers do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

In her talk with students Tinker described threats made to her and her family about the stance they took, including a telephone call Tinker herself answered at her home in which her life was threatened, said John Lang, of Macungie, an EHS junior and a section editor on "The Stinger."

"I don't know if I'd have the courage to stand up the way she did," Lang said. "It is really admirable what she did."

"As a child, how do you have the guts ... to stand up and defend yourself in front of adults whose voices are louder than yours?" Pukanecz said of the Tinkers.

In the near five decades after her Supreme Court victory, Tinker continues to inspire.

Pirro, for instance, who continues to point to Tinker as an exemplar, sports a blue wrist band with the phrase "free speech is not free" as a reminder of the fight protecting free speech continues to require.

And Kevin Rodgers,of Lower Macungie Township, an EHS senior, and online editor of "The Stinger," spoke with Tinker about a story idea, based in part on one of the premiere grievances expressed in the Declaration of Independence: taxation without representation. Rodgers plans to delve into how students under 18 who work are taxed but cannot vote. Tinker encouraged Rodgers to pursue the topic, "I'll probably write about that," Rodgers said.