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Civic Impact

Schoolkid in landmark case is now woman inspiring new Pitt Constitution course for highschoolers

Mary Beth Tinker was only 13 in 1965 when she, her brother John and other junior-high kids decided to protest the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands. Her school in tiny Atlantic, Iowa banned her and four others from returning until they gave up the armbands. With the ACLU, Tinker was the lead plaintiff in the subsequent Supreme Court case, which ruled that students need not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

Tinker didn't find the courage of her convictions on her own. "We were motivated by examples we had in our lives, like so many young people," she says. That included both her parents; her father, a Methodist minister, lost his church after helping its youth group protest a whites-only pool. "They taught us you should act out your principles, not just on Sunday, but every day," Tinker says.

On June 2, she helped kick off a new University of Pittsburgh program that will bring Pitt law students into local high-school classrooms this fall to teach a course on the U.S. Constitution, leading to possible participation in the National Moot Court competition. It's part of the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project, which is only in 10 other U.S. cities.

Kevin Deasy, associate dean of students at Pitt's law school, says he hopes the program will not only help students understand the legal system and their rights, "but also instill in them an appreciation for what education can do in their lives," leading to college and careers perhaps even in the law. It should also be a useful experience for Deasy's own students; there's no better learning tool than needing to master a subject in order to teach it.

For her part, Tinker hopes the program teaches kids how to be active citizens. In 1965, young people "were saying, in a democracy we can do better. And that's been the role of young people so many times throughout history," Tinker observes. "We have ideals in our own country, but we haven't met them. We have a justice system that is not always just -- that's true -- which is all the more reason why young people need to be aware and a part of finding solutions."

Do Good:

• Get inspired by reading more about the Tinker case.

Writer: Marty Levine
Sources: Kevin Deasy, Pitt School of Law; Mary Beth Tinker

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