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 offers two approaches to help students understand the principles governing freedom of expression.

Students become much more engaged when you teach the important cases from long ago, and then use First Amendment Watch to discuss current controversies. Ask your students how important legal principles from those cases apply to conflicts over freedom of expression that are bubbling up in the news every week. Our website provides all the information you need about these current conflicts in two formats: prepared lessons; and using site content to create your own lessons.

Teach Key Cases, Then Apply the Legal Principles to Current Controversies

If you are teaching an important case from the past such as New York Times v. Sullivan, direct your students to our extensive posts on the libel action by Sandy Hook parents against Infowars’ Alex Jones, or the lawsuit by Judge Roy Moore against Sacha Baron Cohen. Or if you are teaching the Pentagon Papers case, direct your students to our coverage of the government’s attempt to stop the downloading of computer code enabling people to use 3D printers to make guns at home. You can choose from many possibilities:

Libel : From New York Times v. Sullivan, go to our page that discusses the current libel suit waged by Sandy Hook parents against Alex Jones and InfoWars.

Prior Restraints : After discussing Near v. Minnesota and New York Times v. United States, go to our coverage of the restraining order that blocked the release of computer codes enabling people to use 3-D printers to make guns at home. (Also see our page that delves into the Pentagon Papers case with videos of Daniel Ellsberg and Katharine Graham, links to the Nixon takes, and much more.)

Invasion of Privacy : After introducing invasion of privacy by the press, consider the lawsuit against Gawker that resulted in its bankruptcy. A basic explanation of privacy law is here.

Content Neutral Government Regulations : After explaining that the government may not regulate the content of speech, go to our page on President Trump and other public officials barring Twitter followers who criticize them.

Government vs. Private Regulation of Speech : Students can see how government vs. private regulation of speech plays out by considering our page on the NFL taking-a-knee controversy.

Defense of a Free Press : With the press under attack, discuss James Madison’s magisterial defense of a free press and its place in a democratic society.

Newsgathering : When discussing the problems of journalists gathering information from public officials, ask students to consider the potential First Amendment violations when the White House and other official sources exclude journalists they don’t like from attending news conferences. Study the claims made in CNN’s lawsuit against the Trump Administration for revoking Jim Acosta’s press pass.

Leaks of Classified Documents : With leaks the focus of investigations by the Justice Department, consider the seizure of emails and phone records of Ali Watkins, a reporter for The New York Times.

Full Teaching Guides for the Law and Current Conflicts

We provide 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, and more. We designed them to easily incorporate into courses on media law, the First Amendment, journalism reporting and writing, and history and politics. Subjects include prior restraint and the printing of 3D guns; symbolic speech and the NFL players protest; and the public forum and public officials blocking critics on social media.

To view this teacher guide without registering, click on the link below.

The following teacher guides are available free with registration.

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