WCA Journalism Students Gain Insight into their Rights at the Heroes of the First Amendment Conference

On Thursday, Nov. 7, students from the 800 News staff visited the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse to learn about how the First Amendment is interpreted in different cases and how it applies to students today. 

At the Heroes of the First Amendment conference, students heard from Mary Beth Tinker, the plaintiff in the Tinker v. Des Moines case, Cathy Kuhlmeier, one of the plaintiffs in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, and Lynne Jackson, the great-great-granddaughter of Dred and Harriet Scott. Also, in addition to hearing from key members of these critical cases, students also were able to hear from Robert Patrick, a reporter for the St. Louis Post Dispatch who is one of the few federal court reporters in the U.S., as well as the Honorable Noelle C. Collins, a Magistrate Judge for the Eastern District of Missouri. The discussion was moderated by Gene Polincinski, president of the Freedom Forum Institute, an organization that promotes diversity in journalism and free press. 

The Heroes of the First Amendment conference was created to educate students about the importance of the First Amendment as well as to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Tinker v. Des Moines.

“I knew I wanted to do something special for the anniversary of the Tinker decision. I have worked with Mary Beth and Cathy in the past because they both continue to meet with teachers and students across the country. I have also participated in several programs for which Gene [Polincinski] was the moderator. The idea started with getting the three of them together in St. Louis and [flew] from there,” explained Rachel Marshall, founder of the event and public education & community outreach administrator for the Eastern District Court of Missouri.

The students first participated in a discussion and question and answer session with Mary Beth Tinker, Cathy Kuhlmeier, Lynne Jackson, Robert Patrick, and the Honorable Noelle C. Collins. One of the moments that stood out, in particular, was when a student asked Tinker whether she fully understood the scope of her case at the time it took place. 

“It took me a long time to realize the impact on student and on schools because I looked around and I saw the [Vietnam] War because when the case was decided it was 1969, one of the worst years for the war. I thought, oh great, I can wear a black armband, but it doesn’t really change anything about the war. Sometimes you get discouraged, and you think that the things you do don’t really matter, but later on after I talked to teachers and administrators, I realized that I did make an impact. The basic idea remains that young people in schools should have a say. Young people in our country should have a say,” Tinker replied.  

After the question and answer session, the students broke up into groups to discuss the First Amendment in their schools on a smaller scale. Westminster students were with journalism and political science students from McCluer North High School and Seckman High School. They were also joined by the Honorable Noelle C. Collins who moderated the discussion.   

I believe the first amendment for students is important and should be protected. I especially believe student journalism is critical. High school and college are for preparing youth for careers and for real life and thus it should be a mirror of reality.”

— Rachel Marshall

The students were posed with two questions and were able to choose which one they wanted to focus on. The first question asked if students should be allowed to express their opinions on social media without worrying about being punished by teachers or school administrators. The second question asked if public schools should be allowed to report on controversial issues in their student newspapers without the approval of school authorities. The group decided to discuss the first question. They had a great conversation about how policies look different in public and private schools. Also, as a part of the exercise, students were asked to come up with a plan of action to implement what they learned at the conference in their schools, and it sparked a desire for real change, especially among students from Seckman High School.

“I plan to draft a social media policy that aptly addresses student usage of social media, which we currently don’t have! I also want to take it to the school board eventually,” explained Elijah Baum, a student at Seckman High School. 

The students that attended the conference were chosen to participate in their schools, either because of their involvement in journalism or political activism.  

“I believe I was chosen to attend the First Amendment Conference because of my interest in law and my passion for one day serving as a Supreme Court justice,” said India, a student at McCluer North High School. 

The conference had a profound impact on the students as it reminded them of the importance of the First Amendment and how it can be applied in ways that may seem counterintuitive.  

“Lynne Jackson said, ‘Sometimes, silence is golden,’ which surprised me to hear at a First Amendment Conference. But it was awesome because she is so right and proved it with the Dred Scott case!” explained Baum.

In the Dred Scott case, Scott continued to teach his family what was right, despite the persecution he faced. He did not protest or incite violence after he lost his case but continued to live in an upright manner. One hundred years later, students were able to hear from Cathy Kuhlmeier, who also lost her case but did not give up, which is truly inspiring. 

It was a breathtaking experience, and it was a pleasure to be standing in a room with so many heroes and people with some of the same passions as me. I could repeat that day a million times over,” said India. 

The inaugural Heroes of the First Amendment Conference truly impacted students as it brought the Constitution to life through the amazing stories of real people. It was amazing to be in the same room with people who fought for their rights, and this day serves as an inspiration for student journalists to continue to stand up for what they believe in.   

“I hope that students learned that the Constitution is not some dusty book up on a shelf, but rather something that affects them and their lives every day. I hope students more fully understand and appreciate the human stories behind the legal process and landmark cases they learn about in school. I hope that student journalists see themselves as relevant contributors,” concluded Rachel Marshall.