Teaching the First Amendment: Judicial Inquiries—Part I

The U.S. is known as the Land of Freedom and stands as a beacon of hope and inspiration to people around the world. For that reason, it’s always timely to review and explore the freedoms guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution—especially those included in the First Amendment, one of the key foundations upon which the country was built. Guaranteeing freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition, the First Amendment touches the lives of all U.S. citizens in different ways, each and every day. These freedoms—their scope and their limitations—are a perfect topic for conversation, spanning age, race, gender, religion, etc.

Students in particular need to understand what the First Amendment means and promises—and what it doesn’t. It’s also important to see and understand how the Amendment has been interpreted and applied over the years by the U.S. Supreme Court, in cases that raised vital questions about its role in our society and how we live. Many of these questions are still very much relevant and remain with us today.

In the table below, we spotlight 10 U.S. Supreme Court cases that focus on the First Amendment, specifically as it relates to schools. Among them are cases that address the constitutionality of whether a school can compel students to salute the American flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance; a local school board can remove books from a library based on their content; and a principal can censor articles written for a school newspaper.

The cases in this table, and the issues they address, should prompt lively discussions and debates amongst your students. Download the accompanying student handout to explore First Amendment issues. 

Suggested Activity:
  1. Break your class into small groups. Have each group select a case from the handout.
  2. Have students research the background, arguments, decision, and how the case impacts today’s students.
  3. Students should present their research to the class in a format of their choosing—a trifold exhibit, a PowerPoint presentation, a video, etc. Or, set up your classroom like courtroom and have students role-play as attorneys to argue their points.

***

We’ll be back next month with another installment of this three-part Judicial Inquiries series of blogs about U.S. Supreme Court cases.

Learn more about HMH Social Studies, including the Judicial Inquiries program for middle and high school students to study 25 landmark Supreme Court cases that continue to impact their lives.