The Free Speech Center

First Amendment News and Insights from MTSU

Central Methodist University

This year marked the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District U.S. Supreme Court ruling, considered a landmark case regarding the First Amendment. The case established the standard for students’ rights to free speech in public schools. In honor of the anniversary, the Central Methodist University Department of Communication and the Ashby Hodge Gallery of American Art jointly sponsored a 1 for All panel discussion with the goal of promoting free speech, freedom of thought, and academic freedom on the campus.

In Tinker, a handful of students at a high school in Des Moines showed up at school wearing black armbands, expressing “mourning for the dead in Vietnam on both sides and support for a Christmas truce.” Though the protest was peaceful, five students, including lead plaintiff John Tinker and his sister Mary Beth, were suspended.

Encouraged and assisted by the Iowa American Civil Liberties Union, the students sued. State courts backed the school, but the case went all the way to the nation’s highest court, which decided, 7-2, in Tinker’s favor. It set the precedent that school expression must cause “substantial disruption” in order for it to be punishable.

“It can hardly be argued,” wrote Justice Abe Fortas, “that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

About 100 students, faculty, staff, and community members attended the free panel discussion Nov. 4, 2019, on the Central Methodist University campus.

“The Free Speech celebration reminded me of how fortunate I am to have constitutional rights,” said audience member Brenna Germann, a senior communications major. “Discussions like this, that encourage students to share and express their voice, should be held in all academic settings.”

The discussion was broadcast on the campus radio station and video recorded. (See the video.

The event included an art display of historical photographs.

The panelists:

At the end of the discussion, John Tinker was presented the CMU Freedom of Speech Advocacy Award.

Sixteen students enrolled in Prof. Collin Brink’s class on public relations campaigns (fall semester 2019) organized the event. This included creating the panel format, garnering publicity, and attending and running the event. For six weeks before the event one representative from the Communication Department, Associate Prof. Kristin Cherry, and one from the Ashby Hodge Gallery attended class meetings once a week to facilitate the planning. The class had complete control over the format of the event.

"When the students were given this service-learning opportunity, many were unaware of the Tinker v. Des Moines case," said Cherry. "They educated themselves on the case as they were tasked with writing the questions for the panel discussion. They became so impressed with the story that they suggested giving an award to Tinker for his advocacy and bravery. In fact, the Department of Communication instituted an award with the intention of presenting it each year to a deserving recipient." 

News coverage

Panel discusses historic First Amendment case, Central Methodist University website 


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