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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Remembering Tinker: The right to vote as expressive conduct

A CRL&P reader recently brought to my attention the Tinker Tour, an ongoing event by the Student Press Law Center to educate students about their First Amendment rights. The tour commemorates Unknown-2the 1969 Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503, in which the court affirmed the First Amendment right of high school students to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War.

On Tuesday, Mary Beth and John Tinker visited their former high school to speak to students. The Des Moines Register reports:

The Tinkers were among five Des Moines students suspended in December 1965 for wearing the black armbands.

The siblings received hate mail after their 1965 suspension. The window of the family car was shattered by a brick. Someone threatened to bomb their home. But with the help of American Civil Liberties Union attorney Dan Johnston, they continued to fight for their rights.

After attempts to repeal the decision were shot down by the local school board, the Tinkers, along with then-16-year-old Roosevelt High School student Christopher Eckhart, took their case to court.

The resulting 7-2 U.S. Supreme Court decision guaranteed that students today have the right to express their opinions without fear, said Mike Hiestand, an attorney with the Virginia-based Student Press Law Center, a sponsor of the Tinker Tour.

Tinker is particularly interesting for what the case says--or doesn't say--about what expressive conduct qualifies as speech under the First Amendment, which, of course, depends on context. Writing for the Court, Justice Fortas found "that the wearing of an armband for the purpose of expressing certain views is the type of symbolic act that is within the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment"; the wearing of the bands "was closely akin to 'pure speech.'" Ibid. at 505. Specifically, the Court observed that the students wore the "black armbands...to exhibit opposition to this Nation's involvement in Vietnam" at a time when the justness of that involvement was being hotly debated. Ibid. at 510-11. ("They wore [the armbands] to exhibit their disapproval of the Vietnam hostilities and their advocacy of a truce, to make their views known, and, by their example, to influence others to adopt them." Ibid. at 514. ). "[W]e do not confine the permissible exercise of First Amendment rights to a telephone booth or the four corners of a pamphlet," wrote Justice Fortas. Ibid. at 513.

CRL&P readers know that I believe that the right to vote ought to be protected First Amendment speech. The Tinker case is another example of protected expressive activity that does not materially differ from public voting.

Although voters today choose candidates on the basis of a complicated set of policy issues, this certainly was not the case in the American colonies and the early American Republic. In Voting in Provincial America, Robert J. Dinkin emphasizes "the major concerns of the state were confined to providing defense against external enemies and keeping internal order." As such, the task of voters "was to choose from among rival candidates the men he believed to be the best leaders[.]"

At that time, voting itself had persuasive value. As Richard R. Beeman describes in his book The Varieties of Political Experience in Eighteenth-Century America, viva voce voting commenced with the most prominent men voting first. As such, candidates hoping to win elections would court these men in hope that their support on Election Day would convince voters down the line to support them. George Washington learned this lesson the hard way, losing his first election badly. But, he changed his strategy, and several years later won a seat in the House of Burgesses. As Beeman wrote: "The strategy of marshaling a prominent display of support early in the election was, at least in this case, highly successful, as Washington raced to an early lead that only grew as the day wore on."

Public voting evinced voters' support for candidates and parties, and such practices continued until the end of the 19th century. The Court has granted First Amendment protection to similar expressive acts, as it did in Tinker. Now, the Court ought to extend such protection to the right to vote as well.

For more on the Tinker's story, see Kali Borkoski's commentary on SCOTUSblog.

CRL&P related posts:

 

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/civil_rights/2013/11/iowa-activists-return-to-schools-that-suspended-them.html

First Amendment, Freedom of Speech, Right to Vote, Schools | Permalink

Comments

The Tinker decision is one that all folks on this blog would enjoy reading. I knew several of the Tinkers when they moved to Saint Louis and were very eloquent and primary shakers of the civil right organization called The Committee To Free JB Johnson. I knew the mother, Lorena Jean Tinker and the three children, then adults. This was in the early to mid 70's. They were eloquent then and now. The Tinker Tour is a wonderful event. People of all ages need to learn about their First Amendment Rights.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Nov 21, 2013 3:28:55 PM

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