Help me teach the First Amendment
October 20, 2010 8:46 PM   Subscribe

Help me teach the First Amendment (to my students, that is- this isn't an O'Donnell Filter)

I teach a Journalism class at a high school. My students are mostly freshman (a handful are sophomores)- many really struggle in school, so I really strive to make Journalism more engaging for them. That yes, it's reading and writing just like English, but it's about the world- it's about YOUR life.

It's an at-risk school, and we're just starting the Journalism program, so I'm trying to formulate the best way to articulate the First Amendment and its applications for my students. Obviously a J class is most interested in freedoms of speech and of the press, but I'm looking for any resources anyone may have that would prove useful- I've seen this but many of the links are bad and I need to focus only on the First Amendment. Additionally, I'd love a little of the hivemind articulation of why my students should care about the First Amendment and any ideas for presenting it in most engaging and interactive way possible. Many thanks!
posted by elliss to Education (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
For a class of 25 kids, bring 25 small bags of M&M's. Announce that the M&M's will be distributed to the kids, but not necessarily evenly -- and they get to debate about how to distribute them.

After the debate begins, every so often, instruct one kid -- whoever's gunning for the most even distribution, maybe, or whoever's gunning for the most meritocratic distribution -- that he or she can no longer speak up, or assemble with others to discuss his or her view, or ask you questions about the process.

Once the M&M's are distributed, probably unfairly, discuss why it's useful for a society to have a rule that says everyone's voice can be heard.
posted by foursentences at 8:56 PM on October 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Make sure they know that freedom of speech does not mean freedom to say what one wants without being criticized. Those offended by the speech of another may respond.

More importantly, the First Amendment limits only the government's ability to stop the speech of a citizen. People often don't get that.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:23 PM on October 20, 2010 [11 favorites]

There are several different clauses in the First Amendment, dealing first with religion (the Establishment Clause and the Freedom of Religion clause) and then with speech (everything after the first semicolon). It sounds like you should focus on the speech part, given the context.

The main thing you can convey to your students is that First Amendment law is incredibly complex. Legal scholars love it for this reason. It is nearly impossible to articulate a general rule that is applicable in every situation.

Law professors use this to challenge students as follows: Have the student state what they think the rule should be. For example, a student might say, "I think the government should not be able to pass ANY law restricting free speech."

Now you come up with examples to challenge that: For example, should people be able to commit perjury? Should soldiers be able to reveal military secrets to the enemy? Should a person be able to shout "fire" in a crowded theater?

The student now realizes things are more complicated than they realize. So ask them to re-formulate their rule, to build some exceptions or conditions into it.

If you have a good imagination, you can always come up with scenarios that show a given rule has weaknesses. If you have any difficulty coming up with examples, just look up some of the major Supreme Court cases dealing with these issues, and ask the students how they would decide these cases. This forces the student to realize just how difficult First Amendment law is.

Another fundamental question is: What counts as protected speech? Is it limited to political opinions? What about obscenity, or pornography? What about commercials -- should there be some limit on false advertising, for example? Or spending for political campaigns -- does writing a check to a political candidate count as speech?

Check out the FindLaw page for major Supreme Court cases on Free Speech:

Scroll down and click on some of the links summarizing particular sub-areas.

This is an amazingly wide-ranging, complicated topic -- if you can get your students to understand that much, you'll accomplish a lot.
posted by mikeand1 at 10:13 PM on October 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

elliss: "I've seen this but many of the links are bad and I need to focus only on the First Amendment."

I commented in that thread when it was originally posted about a series of PSAs produced by the Ad Council after the 9/11 attacks. Asking "What if America wasn't America?", the ads showed what the United States might look like if certain fundamental freedoms were taken away. At the time, the ads were impossible to find, but some have since showed up on YouTube. I think they'd work well for students, by skipping over the usual platitudes about freedom and instead confronting them with the more compelling idea of what their lives might be like without it.

Here are the ads I could find since then:

Library - Freedom of thought
Diner - Freedom of speech
Church - Freedom of religion

The fourth in the series, "Arrest," addresses freedom of the press, and can be seen in this Daily Show segment starting at 2:28.
posted by Rhaomi at 10:17 PM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here are more difficult questions that are guaranteed to elicit opinions from the students; once the student states their opinion, ask them to formulate a rule based on that opinion, something that would apply more generally:

Should the Ku Klux Klan be able to march in the middle of a minority-dominated neighborhood?

Should a speaker at a rally be able to whip the crowd into a frenzy, threatening to start a riot?

Should people be allowed to encourage others to commit crimes? Or should people be able to tell others how to get away with committing crimes?

Should a person be allowed to incite people into turning against the government in violent revolution? What if they don't advocate violence, per se? What is the line between this and permissible criticism of the government?

Should the government be allowed to outlaw pornography? What about child pornography?

Should a person be able to drive through a neighborhood late at night, blasting his opinions over a loudspeaker?

If somebody holds a protest in a semi-public place, like a mall, should the owners be able to kick them off?

What about slander and libel -- should the government be able to outlaw them outright, or should there be some protection for them?

Should a person be allowed to protest a funeral and shout things that are offensive to the persons at the funeral?

These are all real-world problems that courts deal with all the time. Check out some of the cases at the link above for more specific facts.
posted by mikeand1 at 10:30 PM on October 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Here's a good movie you might encourage the students to see:

posted by mikeand1 at 10:33 PM on October 20, 2010

I think it's important to stress the tension between the role of the government (ie, the body of the Constitution) vs. the rights of the citizens (ie the Bill of Rights). If I recall, the Constitution was not ratified until after the first ten amendments were tacked on. This represented a basic mis-trust of authority. All the freedoms outlined in the 1st (religion, speech, press, assembly, right to petition for redress), sort of spring out of that notion that while government might help organize things, it shouldn't be allowed to tell the people that they couldn't complain about government.
posted by Gilbert at 10:51 PM on October 20, 2010

Right now I think a good approach to the First Amendment would be through campaign finance, corporate personhood, Citizens United, etc., as well as separation of church and state (doesn't hafta be CO'D), the linked article which can lead you to KKK stuff if you wanna roll that way, or you can segue into other early-mid 20th Century Supreme Court cases involving the 1A (Scopes, etc.).
posted by rhizome at 10:58 PM on October 20, 2010

Is it a public high school? Do they have complaints about it? (Of course they do.) The First Amendment lets them voice those complaints, even in fairly vulgar language, in the school newspaper or by creating a web site or even by pamphleteering at school ... or by going to the school board meeting and bitching during public comment.

The Student Press Law Center has classroom resources, as well as plenty of stories of student journalists who blew the whistle, fought the man, got threatened by school officials, AND WON.

When I was there (interning) we had this totally ridiculous one where school officials actually expelled students for writing in the school paper that the bathrooms smelled bad. The school got spanked. (We had an equally ridiculous one where students expelled for drinking attempted to claim they had a free speech right to drink. Not so much.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:20 PM on October 20, 2010

I would go with a example/ counter example for a journalism class. Something like what has been suggested above. Find examples that stick out for journalists, Should trials be on TV? Why/Why not, and then take a group of 3 students for each side and compare answers and discuss with the class.

The biggest issue with all of this is the size and complexity of it all. People have entire careers spent on the minute details of number 1 alone. I would suggest sticking to journalism aspects alone or you might get lost.
posted by Felex at 11:35 PM on October 20, 2010

Along with the point/counterpoint approach & the primary research material (that is reading and parsing the entire language of the 1st amendment), I would add to that the Federalist papers #84 and its critique, commonly referred to as the Anti-Federalist 84, but more properly, The Writings of Brutus (pen name for Robert Yates). Long story short, Madison's, errrr, Publius's #84 argued for the Constitution as the set of founding articles without any amendments, arguing that anything not specifically authorized to the Federal Government would of course be fiercely protected by the several states which wold never cede these powers, making amendments unnecessary, further, by enumerating the powers in amendments would tend to lead to the Federal claiming powers to run anything that wasn't specifically reserved in the amendments.

Yates argued the other way, generally favoring the Constitution, but not without amendments that would severely restrict the powers of a concentrated Federal Government.

Reading the primary materials may not be for everyone, but with so much attention and appeals to Originalism by people many of whom have never taken the time to read the Constitution or the arguments surrounding the establishment of the Bill of Rights, you will be doing a service to your studnets to have them argue the points of why these rights were so important as to be enshrined as the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Also--CSpan has some videos more contemporary on the debate of the 1st here.
posted by beelzbubba at 12:39 AM on October 21, 2010

This seems a bit below your grade level, but might be a good way to engage some discussion iCivics
posted by timsteil at 4:50 AM on October 21, 2010

Seconding Ironmouth's comment, a lot.

There are way too many idiots walking around thinking that "everyone has a right to their opinion" means "nobody has the right to tell me I'm wrong."
posted by General Tonic at 6:45 AM on October 21, 2010

I came here to say what Ironmouth said.
posted by geekchic at 7:17 AM on October 21, 2010

Best answer:
Seconding Ironmouth's comment, a lot.

There are way too many idiots walking around thinking that "everyone has a right to their opinion" means "nobody has the right to tell me I'm wrong."

Thirding. The Constitution only restricts government. For the most part.

Part of your instruction should be some light history of what the world was like in the late 1700's that spawned this. They just didn't tack that on because they thought it might be neat, they did it to solve real problems of governments silencing dissidents and forcing religion on people.

Segue that into Germany of the early 1900s. What can happen when a government has too much power or isn't properly restricted. The Nazis didn't just spring up, there were years of unchallenged Jew-hating.

Segue into Cold War USSR. Their unfree society depended on not gettting the citizenry riled up.

Then the Civil Rights era. People expressing unpopular, but correct, views eventually convinced enough people in power that "this is wrong".

Then the Muslim community center / mosque / whatever thing...

We are people, there will always be a minority that needs speaking up for, or a person in power that needs to be exposed. Or a majority who thinks they can violate the rights of a minority just because they are too dense to understand what freedom really means.

The first amendment gives us the right to be in that minority as well as to speak up for ourselves and others. The founders of the country understood human nature all too well- they knew people were always going to have a bug up their ass about something, and they wanted to try their best to assure that those people wouldn't be able to use the power of the government to push people around for what amounts to differing opinions.

(Actually, that's another good part of the lesson: learning the skill of being able to understand two differing opinions at the same time. Jefferson was a dick, but he had nice penmanship. Westboro Baptist are awful people, but we become worse people if we try to take their rights away.)
posted by gjc at 7:23 AM on October 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have had success (with older students) using newspaper articles about real situations in America when young people sued for First Amendment violations. There are countless stories along these lines about students newspapers, but others as well. Speech can extend to what students wear or put in the yearbook. Perhaps you could start the discussion by talking about some case studies.
posted by TrarNoir at 8:27 AM on October 21, 2010

Gilbert, the Bill of Rights was added several years after the Constitution was ratified. What you are thinking of is that Madison promised he would add a Bill of Rights, as a means of persuading the ambivalent.
posted by foursentences at 10:07 AM on October 21, 2010

Best answer: The main thing they should understand is: why was it so important to constrain the government in this way? You might ask them what they think the government does, and what it can do? Is the government ever a threat to us? How could a government be a threat? (you could watch a dystopian movie, or read some of 1984, or look at examples of present-day totalitarian states)

It must have been really important to the founders, to constrain the government, since they put it right up there at the beginning. We take these freedoms for granted ("hey, I'll do what I want, it's a free country") and it's instructive to see what it would be like if we didn't have them.

An example involving your school, or some popular movie/story they know about, might be good for illustrating this - for example, maybe there has been a story about police abuses in your city? Without the first amendment, the government would be able to prevent the news from covering that story. News coverage of the story can force the police department to fire people who do wrong, or to change their procedures to prevent abuses. Or maybe there has been a story about corruption in city government? Same story, if the government could shut down news outlets that tried to report on corruption.

There are present-day countries where this happens - where the government can just shut down news outlets if they report on unfavorable things. Are those governments likely to be corrupt? Probably so! Are they likely to do various abusive things, like locking people up without a trial, etc? The point of the Bill of Rights is to prevent those things - and you can find examples of present-day countries that don't have these basic restrictions on what the government can do, where it has bad consequences.

I think it's a good idea to look at this basic main idea (an unconstrained government can be a terrible threat, and that's why we have all these rules about what the government CAN'T do) before getting into the edge cases (like porn, violent video games, etc).

If they have a hard time with the constraints-on-government formulation, you can flip it around and talk about basic rights we have. The basic rights formulation is problematic because one can ask, what gives us these basic rights? Where do they come from? And giving a consequence-based defense of the rights is maybe easier to understand (if we don't protect these basic rights, there are bad consequences like unchecked corruption, etc).
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:28 AM on October 21, 2010

If you think they'll be more interested in real people's stories than in abstract discussion, maybe bios of reporters who made a big difference?

Ida B Wells
Upton Sinclair

You could do a simplified version of the muckrakers in the early 20th century, or of Watergate, etc.

Wikipedia has a pretty nice quickie description of freedom of the press including descriptions of some present-day countries where journalists can be imprisoned etc. Your students could look into some of those cases - if they use Facebook, are there countries where they could be put in prison for what they write on their Facebook pages? Why is that bad?
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:41 AM on October 21, 2010

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