Making the Law Come Alive: Teaching the First Amendment Through Contemporary Conflicts

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San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold (58), quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) and free safety Eric Reid (35) kneel in protest during the playing of the national anthem before a NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals in Santa Clara, California, Oct 6, 2016. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports/File Photo

First Amendment Watch provides a variety of lesson plans on First Amendment principles. We designed them so that you can easily incorporate them into your courses on media law, the First Amendment, journalism reporting and writing, history, and politics.

One set of lessons explain the law through a focus on contemporary conflicts involving freedom of expression. Each guide offers background on the law, links to primary sources, discussion questions for students, videos, and discussions of current conflicts. Another set focuses on historical events in which freedom of expression played a compelling role. And the third set presents primary source materials about freedom of expression along with our commentary.

All our educational materials are free to download. We do, however, ask that our readers fill out a basic contact form before reading or downloading our teacher guides. This provides us (and our funders) some information about where and how our guides are being used.


Guest in your class

First Amendment Watch founding editor Stephen D. Solomon or another expert are available to visit your class on issues covered by our teaching guides. Professor Solomon has recently appeared as a guest at classes at Tulane Law School, Tulane University School of Liberal Arts, and Korea University. Please email us if we can be of assistance.


Learning the Law

These teacher guides are based on the idea that students are more likely to fully engage in learning traditional free speech principles when they enter this arena through the lens of a contemporary conflict. Each guide presents one or more conflicts in the news and then discusses the First Amendment principles that apply. Then students are asked to apply those principles back to the conflict. Topics covered include the right to record police in public, hate speech in America, and disinformation and the First Amendment.

Teacher and Citizen Guides: Recording Video and Audio of Police Officers

By 2019, more than 81% of Americans owned a smartphone, as compared to 35% in 2011. This has given rise to “citizen journalists” who record and disseminate videos of police officers performing their duties in public. Does the First Amendment protect them, or can the state prohibit the recording of police activity?

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Court Access

Teacher Guide: Access to Courts and Court Records

Public access to the judicial system is a necessary element in a constitutional democracy. The idea behind “We the People”—the notion that the people are sovereign—assumes that the people govern their institutions. This teachers guide discusses access to courts, including how court access is faring during the COVID-19 crisis; the development of access to criminal trials; the importance of both the First Amendment right of access and the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial; the clash between the First Amendment and the Sixth Amendment concerns over a fair trial; the qualified right of access to civil court proceedings; the dangers of “secret justice”; and cameras in the courts.

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More Law Teacher Guides


Historical Events

These teacher guides examine First Amendment principles through the lens of historical moments such as the civil rights movement, the Sedition Act of 1798, and James Madison’s defense of a free press.

Teacher Guide: How are NFL Protests Related to Symbolic Speech and the First Amendment?

Symbolic speech as a form of protest, like taking a knee at a football game while others stand for the National Anthem, enjoys a long history in America. The NFL protests—players taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem before NFL games—provides an extraordinary opportunity for teaching how the idea of speech has evolved beyond the spoken word to encompass artistic and symbolic speech.

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Civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr.

Teacher Guide: The Civil Rights Movement and the First Amendment: How Free Expression Freedoms Developed During the Struggle for Equality

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s not only led to significant legislative change and social progress, but it also served as a catalyst for the expansion of First Amendment freedoms. This teacher’s guide recounts many of the First Amendment developments ushered in during this new era of commitment to civil rights and equality. These include constitutionalizing libel law, protecting peaceful protesting, acknowledging new forms of symbolic speech, recognizing the freedom of association, and limiting the ways in which licensing laws can be used to censor speech.

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More History Teacher Guides


History Speaks

These guides showcase the writings of great thinkers such as John Stuart Mill on liberty, Cato’s letters that advocated for greater individual liberty, and James Madison’s and Thomas Jefferson’s letter that discussed the advisability of a Bill of Rights. They provide great opportunities for essay assignments and discussions in class.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address

On March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson delivered his First Inaugural Address in the Senate Chamber before taking the oath of office administered by Chief Justice John Marshall. He became the nation’s third President amidst the fires still burning from the odious Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Under the Sedition Act, the Federalist Administration of John Adams had jailed more than a dozen Democratic-Republican political opponents for their speech or writing. Jefferson, vice president under Adams, and James Madison had opposed the Acts in their Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, written in secret.

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Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington

In this famous letter to Edward Carrington, a fellow Virginian, Jefferson upholds the freedom of the people to criticize their government. The American people “are the only censors of their governors; and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution. To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty.”

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