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, along with the remaining nine amendments that make up the Bill of Rights, was passed by Congress as an addition to the Constitution in 1791. It is one of the best known of the twenty-seven amendments, perhaps because it is one which applies to every citizen on a daily basis. While a number of constitutional amendments are important to the functioning of the government—such as the 25th amendment, which regulates the order of succession in the executive branch—and others that delineate the rights of the states, the freedoms of expression that are outlined in the first amendment are rights that each of us practices over the course of our lifetimes—every week and every day. We exercise the rights guaranteed in this amendment every time we voice a political opinion, read a newspaper, or attend religious services.
EDSITEment has a number of important resources for helping students better understand the First Amendment, and for assisting teachers, parents, and caregivers in discussing the amendment’s content and application to life in the United States. The EDSITEment lesson plan The First Amendment: What’s Fair in a Free Country? introduces elementary school students to the amendment, and how we, in a free society, share both the benefits of free expression and the responsibilities of those rights. For older students EDSITEment offers a lesson plan on the core issues of the First Amendment: Regulating Free Speech. This lesson raises questions that extend from the freedoms granted by the amendment, such as: Should all speech be allowed? Are there certain kinds of speech that are so contentious as to need regulation? Will regulation of one type of speech open the door for the regulation of others?
In addition to these lesson plans which directly address the First Amendment and the questions that arise from it, students may want to delve into the history and context from which these freedoms derived. The EDSITEment lesson plan The Preamble to the Constitution: How Do You Make a More Perfect Union? helps students to understand the path that early American leaders followed in order to clarify the structure of the new government. You may also wish to read through the EDSITEment lesson plan Background on the Patriot Attitude Towards the Monarchy, which outlines many of the grievances American colonists had against the English monarchy, and which they sought to counter in creating our own foundational documents. Students can also learn more about the delicate, yet powerful, series of checks and balances that were instituted in our system of government through the Constitution and its amendments in the EDSITEment lesson plan Balancing Three Branches at Once: Our System of Checks and Balances.
EDSITEment also offers links to a number of reviewed Internet resources for further reading and information on the First Amendment, as well as the remaining twenty-six amendments, and on the Constitution. Students may access the text of these documents through the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Avalon Project at Yale Law School. After students read these documents they can use the EDSITEment-reviewed website Oyez U.S. Supreme Court Multimedia in order to see how these documents are applied within the law. You and your students can search the website database in order to find cases, such as FEC v. NCPAC, which raises First Amendment questions and see the decisions. You may use this website in conjunction with the EDSITEment lesson plan The Supreme Court: The Judicial Power of the United States, which will help students to see how the Supreme Court implements the Constitution in interpreting the law of the land.
Teachers, parents, and caregivers can work with students to complete the questions in the Student Launchpad. This activity will give students an introduction to the rights guaranteed each citizen by the First Amendment.
In the Student Launchpad for grades 6-12 students will delve more deeply into some of the issues raised by the rights—and responsibilities—inherent within the First Amendment.
Detail from Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom of Speech.” Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.