Christopher Eckhardt died Dec. 27, 2012.
Christopher Who? Chris Eckhardt – First Amendment warrior and hero who in 1965 joined friends John and Mary Beth Tinker in wearing black armbands to school. Their silent protest of America’s involvement in Vietnam created a domino cascade that yielded school suspensions, lawsuits, appeals, and finally in 1968 a successful judgment from the U.S. Supreme Court (Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District).
So what’s the big deal? It’s only that the high court formally affirmed that First Amendment protection applied to scholastic journalists. That protection lasted 20 years until the same court stripped students of their First Amendment rights in its Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier decision. Subsequently a handful of states passed laws returning their students to Tinker standards, yet most of America’s scholastic journalists remain chained by the Hazelwood decision.
We all need to continue the vital work started by Chris, John and Mary Beth 48 years ago to ensure all scholastic journalists enjoy First Amendment rights:
- Encourage our students to thoroughly and responsibly tackle those tough, sometimes edgy stories that need to be told – even if the content may be unpopular.
- Use, promote and support services of the Student Press Law Center and similar organizations that become the student-journalists’ best friend when confronted with nasty legal dilemmas.
- Recognize individuals and publications that have struggled with First Amendment issues. They are our contemporary warriors and heroes.
- Insist that state legislators pass laws similar to those of states that support scholastic journalist freedoms (at last count, eight).