Christopher Eckhardt left his mark as student-speech litigant

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Christopher Eckhardt left a lasting legacy in First Amendment law as one of the three student litigants who prevailed in their landmark 1969 free-speech battle before the U.S. Supreme Court in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.

Eckhardt died in Clearwater, Fla., on Dec. 27 at age 62. But he will be remembered forever for his exploits wearing black peace armbands as a teen.

His is not a household name, as he was not the first plaintiff listed in the lawsuit. That honor fell to the other two plaintiffs with the last name of Tinker — John F. Tinker and Mary Beth Tinker. Yet Eckhardt was an essential part of the case.

In 1965 Eckhardt, like the Tinkers, wore a black armband to Theodore Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa, even though a hastily passed school policy banned such symbols. The students wore the armbands to protest U.S. policy in Vietnam, support the Christmas truce proposed by Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and mourn those who had died in the war. When Eckhardt arrived at school wearing his armband, he went straight to the principal’s office to turn himself in.

The Tinkers and Eckhardt were suspended and challenged their suspensions in federal court, contending school officials had violated their First Amendment free-speech rights. They did not prevail in the lower federal courts. Believing in the righteousness of their cause, though, they took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Eckhardt traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend oral arguments in the case. He told me in an interview in 1999 that he knew he and the Tinkers would win the case when Justice Thurgood Marshall asked the attorney for the school board: “Seven out of eighteen thousand, and the school board was afraid that seven students wearing armbands would disrupt eighteen thousand. Am I correct?”

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the three students, 7-2, and issued its famous opinion in Tinker v. Des Moines. “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” Justice Abe Fortas wrote for the majority. “In order for the State in the person of school officials to justify prohibition of a particular expression of opinion, it must be able to show that its action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.”

Mary Beth Tinker said in a message to me today that, concerning her wearing of the armband, “a lot of people have called me courageous for my little action, but Chris was really the brave one. He said that when he wore the armband to school on Dec. 16, 1965, he did it because ‘the United States talks about peace but at the same time escalates war.’”

Tinker said Eckhardt later became a social worker securing child-support payments, among other things.

“He spoke up for the First Amendment, but also used it in his life to promote justice,” she said. “Most recently, he published a book on the rights of psychiatric patients. He was also a strong advocate for the rights of prisoners, and for gay rights.”

“Here’s to Chris Eckhardt,” she said. “You were a kind and brave man, and your loving spirit was a gift to the world and to all of us who knew you.”

The Tinker case remains the leading K-12 student-speech case in American jurisprudence. It also represents the high-water mark of student First Amendment free-speech rights.

Eckhardt was justifiably proud of his significant role in that history. I met him in person for the first time at the symposium “Gathering at the Schoolhouse Gate” at the University of Missouri at Kansas City Law School in September 2012. He spoke with passion about the First Amendment and freedom in general.

He quipped that he was the “et al.” in the case.

Christopher Eckhardt was far more than an “et al.” He was a litigant in one of the most important U.S. Supreme Court cases in history.

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