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

Colin Kaepernick
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 full lesson plans on First Amendment principles, each of them tied to current controversies. Each guide offers background on the law, links to primary sources, discussion questions for students, videos, and more. We designed them so that they could be easily incorporated into courses on media law, the First Amendment, journalism reporting and writing, history, and politics. Currently, our list guides teach prior restraint using instructions on printing 3-D guns; symbolic speech using the NFL players protest; and public forum using public officials blocking critics on social media.

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

First Amendment Watch’s teacher guides are based on the idea that students are more likely to grasp traditional free speech principles when they see how they play out in contemporary controversies. Drawing from news stories on our own site, our guides combine old and new cases to give a fuller picture of the challenges associated with protecting our First Amendment rights.

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.

Teacher Guides

Teacher Guide: Can First Amendment Defenses Save Provocateur Alex Jones From The Sandy Hook Libel Suits?

(Available without registration!) Alex Jones and his website Infowars made repeated claims that the 2012 murder of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut was a “giant hoax,” possibly instigating a number of his followers to harass the families of the victims. Does the First Amendment protect Alex Jones’ speech?

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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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19th Century Public Trial

Teacher Guide: Balancing The Right To A Fair Trial With The Right Of A Free Press

Each year, the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) convenes the New York Fair Trial Free Press Conference, which brings together a panel of journalists, judges, and lawyers to discuss a hypothetical case involving free speech, the freedom of the press, and citizens’ right to a fair trial. This guide uses videos taken from the 2018 conference to address First Amendment issues like privacy rights, shield laws, and confidential sources.

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Teacher Guide: 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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Charlottesville

Teacher Guide: Hate Speech In America

Although many countries across the globe have laws prohibiting hate speech, the United States protects offensive speech about certain groups that historically have been subject to discrimination. This guide explores the First Amendment issues that arise from attempting to regulate hate speech. The guide also goes into existing limitations on expression, including incitement to imminent lawless action, fighting words, true threats, and harassment.

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James Madison

Teacher Guide: Why is James Madison’s Defense of Freedom of the Press Critical Today?

Public officials of all political stripes throughout American history have accused the press of false or biased reporting. President Donald Trump, for one, has accused some news organizations of publishing "fake news" about his administration. This is an opportune time for educators to reach back to James Madison for what may be the most powerful defense of freedom of the press written by any American.

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Sarah Huckabee Sanders

Teacher Guide: Press Briefings and Journalists’ Rights

Though politicians and journalists need one another, their interactions are by nature often adversarial. A key part of a reporter’s job is to look beyond the story public officials want to tell and to ask uncomfortable questions. But when officials believe reporters go too far, can they ban them from attending future gatherings? And what First Amendment or other rights protect reporters from such actions?

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Teacher Guide: The Sedition Act of 1798

The Sedition Act of 1798 was the first great test of the First Amendment’s protection for the freedom of speech and press. Under the new law, Americans could face up to $2,000 in fines (nearly $42,000 in 2020 dollars) and two years in prison for criticizing a public official. Passed only seven years after the ratification of the Constitution, the Sedition Act forced the young country to decide not just whether it was truly dedicated to freedom of speech, but also what that idea would even mean in a democratic republic.

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Teacher Guide: Can Public Officials Block Critics from Their Social Media Accounts Consistent with the First Amendment

Today, most political and social discussion occurs in the digital sphere, often on peoples' social media platforms. Seeing this, some public officials have opened Facebook and Twitter accounts to share important updates and engage with their constituents. But what happens when the official wants to remove a user who is posting critical feedback? This teacher guide uses the Knight First Amendment Institute v Trump to show how First Amendment principles like public forum and viewpoint discrimination apply online.

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Women's March

Teacher Guide: The Right to Peacefully Assemble

This teacher guide examines the role peaceful protest has played in United States history, how the law evolved to ensure greater protections for protest, and contemporary threats to assembly rights. It includes information about the civil rights movement, major court cases, and the philosophy of civil disobedience.

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Teacher Guide: Prior Restraints—The Most Egregious Violation of First Amendment Rights

The most fundamental violation of freedom of the press is considered to be a prior restraint—an order issued by a court that prohibits the publication or broadcast of material that in some way is deemed especially harmful. Prior restraints have come up in many different contexts, including permits for demonstrations and ratings for movies. In this guide, however, we focus on two of the most important areas—where publication of information may endanger national security and where it may harm a defendant’s right to a fair trial under the Sixth Amendment. 

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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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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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Roberto Rossellini's 1948 film "Il Miracolo."

Teacher Guide: Does the First Amendment Allow the Government to Censor Art? 

For much of our nation’s history, the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech did not clearly protect art from government censorship. Over the course of the 20th century, however, courts gradually extended speech protections to a broader range of artistic expression, including film, dance, theater, and fine arts. Today, public officials can censor art only in limited circumstances. What are those circumstances, and what protection does the First Amendment provide?

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