“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” – The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Why teach the First Amendment?
Help tomorrow’s citizens find their voices. Teach the First Amendment. The lesson plans, school activities and other resources below are designed to make it easier to teach our democratic republic's first freedom — the First Amendment.
The most basic liberties guaranteed to Americans — embodied in the 45 words of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — assure Americans a government that is responsible to its citizens and responsive to their wishes. These 45 words are as alive and important today as they were more than 200 years ago. These liberties are neither liberal nor conservative, Democratic nor Republican — they are the basis for our representative democratic form of government.
We know from studies beginning in 1997 by the nonpartisan First Amendment Center, and from studies commissioned by the Knight Foundation and others, that few adult Americans or high school students can name the individual five freedoms that make up the First Amendment.
The First Amendment isn’t an artifact of legal history buried in the past. It is a living part of the everyday lives of every one of us. Especially in education, First Amendment issues offer almost limitless applications and opportunities.
Teachable aspects of the First Amendment include:
How our core freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition came to be guaranteed is a fascinating saga of American history – involving towering figures, particularly James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. It is a saga that began even before U.S. history and continues to evolve today.
Students should know that the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment, did not spring whole into existence with no debate by our Founding Fathers. Rather, it arose through great contention and controversy, illustrating the early — and continuing — workings of U.S. government and our legal system.
We have the freedom to speak, write, worship, assemble, and ask the government for change, but how do we as citizens use those freedoms? What does it mean to exercise freedom responsibly? The First Amendment offers teachers a way into matters of civility and respect for others in society.
Current affairs. Examples of the First Amendment in action and in the news are inexhaustible. They can form the basis for class debates. From student protests, to issues of religious freedom in schools and in society at large, to press censorship and freedom of information, teachable First Amendment moments are everywhere.
Below, the Free Speech Centerhas gathered a host of resources and ideas to help teachers teach the First Amendment. As more become available, they will be added.
The primers, lesson plans and resources below will draw young people into an exploration of how their freedoms began and how they operate in today’s world. Students will discuss just how far individual rights extend, examining rights in the school environment and public places. The primers and lessons may be used in history and government, civics, language arts and journalism, art, and debate classes. They may be used in sections or in their entirety. Many of these materials indicate an overall goal, offer suggestions on how to teach the lesson and list additional resources and enrichment activities.
Beyond use in digital or in-person orientation, this lesson can be used for onboarding teaching assistants to give them an overview of their rights in the classroom. The framework for a faculty-led panel on academic freedom can also be used as a Constitution Day activity on campus. From the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Beyond use during digital or in-person orientations, this lesson can be a tool to teach student-government members and student-organization leaders about how the university can and cannot respond to controversial speakers. From the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
This guide will help educators teach students about the First Amendment and whether or not it protects Alex Jones from libel suits against him from the families of Sandy Hook victims after he claimed the killings of schoolchildren was a hoax. From First Amendment Watch.
On campuses across the country, speech and due-process rights have been challenged as administrators struggle to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. See how these trends have affected vital student and faculty rights in higher education. From the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
When professional football player Rashard Mendenhall tweeted about celebrations surrounding the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, he gained the ire of many Americans. This case study explores the story of Mendenhall’s tweets and the freedom of speech. From the Media Ethics Initiative.
Social media platforms are private companies, which means they can censor material posted on them according to their own rules and regulations. This primer shows major social media platforms’ policies on hate speech, obscenity, misinformation and harassment. A primer from the Freedom Forum.
This video can serve as a resource on campus web pages explaining student-speech rights, teaching incoming students about when speech crosses the line and loses First Amendment protection. This module focuses primarily on defining and providing examples of freedom of speech limitations, such as harassment, true threats, intimidation, and other unlawful conduct. From the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
The video adaptation of this lesson and the script can be used in digital or in-person program orientations to teach students tactics for responding to offensive speech and when offensive speech loses First Amendment protection. From the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
This lesson in programming explains IT policies or codes of conduct. The video can also be placed on university web pages explaining student rights or IT policies. From the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
The First Amendment Center and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation present this guide on social media and the First Amendment for middle and high school teachers, including lesson plans, resources and more.
This annual report condenses the considerable research in FIRE’s Spotlight database into an accessible picture of the state of free expression on our nation’s campuses. The report surveys speech codes at America’s largest and most prestigious colleges and universities, providing readers with key data on individual schools and national trends.
Study-abroad programs have experienced extensive changes recently due to COVID-19, but while the logistics of travel are different and may remain changed in coming years, the underlying freedom of expression issues remain constant. From the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Beyond use in digital or in-person orientations, this video adaptation can be placed on university web pages explaining student rights, or on diversity and inclusion pages, to give a fuller picture of how to embrace difficult conversations. From the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
This research documents the ways and reasons that scholars have faced calls for sanction; how scholars and institutional administrators have responded to different forms of targeting; and what (if any) sanctions scholars have ultimately faced. From the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Students will learn about West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the 1943 Supreme Court case that determined that it was unconstitutional for schools to force students to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. From iCivics.org.
Students in this Freedom Forum exercise engage in a simulated high-stakes debate over a national security situation that highlights the causes and effects of tensions between journalists and government officials.
In this case study, readers will examine the ethics of doxing – publishing someone’s private identifying information – in relation to digital journalism, focusing on HuffPost’s covering of Amy Mekelburg and her far-right Twitter account. From the Media Ethics Initiative.
Freedom of the press is much simpler in theory than in practice. In this Freedom Forum activity, students use the E.S.C.A.P.E. strategy to closely analyze a historical source, shedding light on how freedom of the press has ignited controversy and drawing comparisons to today’s debates over the role of the news media.
What is a leak? Is leaking illegal? Are journalists protected for publishing classified information? This interactive guide from the Freedom Forum answers a variety of questions about leaks and whistleblowing.
Bill of Rights Institute lesson plan examining how this landmark 1964 Supreme Court case protected press freedom even when errors are published, as long as there is no “actual malice” in publishing them.
Did you know the First Amendment protects the right of news reporters and citizen journalists to report on matters of public concern? This Free Speech Center lesson further explores news gathering, reporting and privacy and how it is protected.
More and more online news sites are disallowing comments. Is this an unethical decision, or is it just a necessary measure to eliminate irrelevant and uncivil comments? This Media Ethics Initiative case study tackles these questions.
The video adaptation of this lesson and the script can be used during digital or in-person journalism-program orientations or class lectures, or as part of remarks while onboarding new student newspaper staff. From the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Too often, student journalists are expected to act as publicists rather than journalists. And when they stray from the misplaced expectations of administrators — and sometimes even their fellow students — student journalists may face consequences. From the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
This foundational Freedom Forum module examines the three models of religious liberty in public schools: the “sacred public school, “naked public school,” and “civic public school.” It also introduces the 3Rs of religious freedom.
This Freedom Forum module serves as a brief historical overview of the relationship between religion and public schools. Participants will also examine how that relationship has changed over time and the impact of these issues on public schools today.
People from all different religions live and thrive in America thanks to the religious liberty protected by the First Amendment. This Freedom Forum First Amendment Center guide posted by the Religious Freedom Center provides lesson plans and resources for educators to use to teach students about religious liberty.
This lesson presents two diametrically opposed situations involving religion in public secondary schools, toward fostering an understanding of the two clauses of the First Amendment pertaining to religion. From the Free Speech Center.
This Freedom Forum module sets-out guidelines for teaching about religion in public schools. It explores how religion can be naturally incorporated into a curriculum; examines why it is important to address religion in academics; and considers the risks of ignoring or not teaching about religious traditions.
Students do not leave their religious identities behind when they go to school, and the free- exercise clause protects their rights to religious expression and practice. This Freedom Forum module examines the protections, and limitations, of the free-exercise clause for students in public schools.
The First Amendment’s establishment clause prevents the government from creating any law “respecting an establishment of religion” or that privileges one religion over another. This Freedom Forum module examines the purpose and scope of the clause, what constitutes a violation of the provision, and common issues in public schools where the establishment clause might apply.
This lesson from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History teaches about the Great Awakening, a series of important religious revivals in Colonial America. These revivals connect to the Colonists’ desire to declare independence and the eventual writing of the First Amendment.
Students analyze a 1992 Supreme Court case about religion in public schools, drawing on their First Amendment knowledge to support their own conclusions about how the court should have ruled. From the Freedom Forum.
From the Media Ethics Initiative. Readers will learn about free speech and protest on college campus in this case study, focusing on Young Conservatives of Texas’s 2016 protest against University of Texas’s affirmative-action program.
This video examines a Supreme Court case involving a Nazi march through a mostly Jewish neighborhood in Illinois, placing the case in the context of the First Amendment freedom of peaceable assembly. From Annenberg Classroom.
This Annenberg Classroom lesson will focus on freedom of assembly as established in the First Amendment. Students will consider the importance of the right to assemble and protest by analyzing cases where First Amendment rights were in question.
Beyond use during digital or in-person orientations, this lesson can be used in first-year experience seminars so students can participate in discussions about the history presented and its relationship to current events on campus. This lesson can be particularly useful for teaching international students about the history of free speech on American campuses. From the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
This American Bar Association teaching resource “discusses the constitutional right to petition, and how petitions have been used in American history.” Includes a handout, found at https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/public_education/Lawday/2020/Petition_examples_handouts.pdf
These six short films, produced by the Tully Center for Free Speech at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, teach about different Supreme Court cases and other topics related to the First Amendment.
These resources, created by PBS, teach students about issues America faces today, helping them understand the importance of civics. (This resource is the new version of PBS NewsHour EXTRA. The old content on EXTRA has not been fully converted to Classroom and is currently accessible at https://www.pbs.org/newshour/classroom/.)
From banned books that warn against censorial regimes to international stories about fighting censorship to books chronicling the First Amendment’s role in America’s media landscape, this list has a book or document fit for any academic program. From the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
This iCivics lesson, formatted as a web quest, will have students analyze Supreme Court cases that interpreted the First Amendment, as well as explain the role of the Supreme Court in interpreting the Constitution.
In 1776, our founders risked their lives to publish a Declaration of Independence. Those early Americans sought “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” by creating a nation founded on freedom. This Free Speech Center quiz tests knowledge of the Declaration of Independence.
With this lesson plan, teachers will lead students through a First Amendment-related story, asking questions and prompting debate along the way to help students think more deeply about the five freedoms. From the First Amendment Museum.
This comprehensive Free Speech Center resource boasts “more entries on the First Amendment than any other work of its kind.” With more than 1,500 searchable entries, it can give you information on any First Amendment question you might wish to explore in class.
This First Amendment Watch guide will help educators teach about the Sedition Act of 1798 https://mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1238/sedition-act-of-1798 and its impact on the First Amendment at the time.
Learn how activists in past social movements leveraged the power of First Amendment to bring about change, then dissect persuasive techniques used to shape public opinion and their application to current issues. From the Freedom Forum.
Can you envision life in the United States without the five freedoms of the First Amendment? This exercise from the Free Speech Center will help instill a greater understanding and appreciation for the freedoms the First Amendment guarantees and protects.