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The First Amendment: A Powerful Way to Teach Critical Thinking (Council Chronicle, Sept. 2006)

by Deb Aronson

PHOTO: First Amendment Spirit: Davenport Central junior Steven Ford shows off his painstakingly painted face for Constitution Day (September 18). Journalism students dressed up as First-Amendment-related characters, and during lunch periods, peers paid pennies to hear them conduct cheers, recite short scripts, and perform other activities appropriate to the day.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press, or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Perhaps it is not surprising that an opinion poll conducted last March and reported by the BBC found that just one in 1,000 American adults could name all five First Amendment protections, but 220 in 1,000 could name all five characters from the popular television cartoon The Simpsons. This is simply one of the most recent examples of American adults’ ignorance of the First Amendment.

Even more significant, however, is the lack of First Amendment understanding among students. The Knight Foundation report titled Future of the First Amendment [see sidebar at the end of this article] found that three out of four students say either that they do not think about the First Amendment or that they take its rights for granted. They lack knowledge and understanding about key aspects of the First Amendment. For example, 75 percent of the 100,000 students surveyed believe that flag burning is illegal and nearly half erroneously believe the government can restrict indecent material on the Internet.

To ensure that students, as part of their civic education, are internalizing First Amendment protections, some journalism and English teachers are striving to inform their students about the First Amendment and its significance. Teachers and students alike are finding the benefits go beyond being able to recite the protections of speech, media, religion, assembly, and petition.

First and foremost, teachers note that teaching and learning about the First Amendment is a powerful way to also teach critical thinking. For example, Robert Crafton, professor of English at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania and chair of the NCTE Standing Committee Against Censorship, starts his first-year students out with a controversial issue, such as should schools be allowed to require prayer? And what precisely does the First Amendment protect in this case? His goal is to get them beyond their immediate knee-jerk emotional response.

“I always tell my students, ‘I don’t care how you feel about this—I want to know how you think about it.’ Those are two different things,” he says.

Learning by Doing

Likewise, Deb Buttleman Malcolm, who teaches English and advises the student newspaper at Davenport Central High School in Davenport, Iowa, helps students determine what exactly the First Amendment does protect and whether the given issue they are concerned about falls under the First Amendment.

“I talk to the students about issues like press law, ethics, and libel, but we are a ‘Tinker’ school [see the sidebar at the end of this article], meaning the students control the content of the paper,” says Malcolm. “The administrators do not review the paper before it goes to press.

“We’re practicing the First Amendment in a learning lab setting,” she says of her students. “They are learning by doing, by being conscious of what they print, and by not taking risks just for the sake of risks but to print things for an actual purpose.”

Malcolm notes that by taking this level of responsibility, not only are the students learning by doing, they are practicing their critical thinking skills when they consider the repercussions of taking a given tack.

For example, this past fall a student reported and wrote an article on the state of technology in the district. The printed story included quotes from many teachers who said they had experienced numerous problems with service and access. No one imagined the story would cause problems, but after it ran, one of the technicians met with the principal about what he saw as inaccuracies in the article. When the paper received a letter to the editor from the technician, the students were reminded that the minority voice had a right to be heard. At that point both the administration and the teachers “let First Amendment principles run its course, trusting the kids as part of open forum and the learning lab structure,” says Buttleman Malcolm. After receiving legal advice from the Student Press Law Center, an organization that gives free legal advice to student newspapers, the paper’s staff voted to run both the original letter and an accompanying rebuttal, defending their facts and their sources.

In this school, the principal trusted the students to make the decisions and they gained a great experience. The original reporter won a gold key award from Quill & Scroll, the national journalism honor society, for the story.

Malcolm would also argue that it is as important for students to understand what is not protected as to understand what is.

“Yes, the First Amendment is about freedom of speech, but it doesn’t give you the right to infringe on others; it doesn’t give you the right to plagiarize or libel someone,” she says.


Malcolm also strives to bring the First Amendment alive outside her class. For example, once a quarter, Malcolm’s students conduct outreach activities. Sometimes the students portray “talking statues,” where they take on the persona of a famous historical character who has a connection to First Amendment issues. This year they portrayed journalists who were killed because of something they were investigating or had written about. In 2005, 37 journalists worldwide were killed because of something they wrote; the year before, 104 journalists died.

“Dramatizing people who died for the right to speak and historical figures who made a difference by their words and actions has meant a lot to me because I do not think that many people in my generation respect the First Amendment and its consequences,” says Taylor Pearson, a junior in Malcolm’s journalism program.

Sarah Elgatian, another of Malcolm’s students, had a chance to exercise her First Amendment rights during the November 2 Global Walk-Out for Peace, Freedom & Justice for All. “At the designated time, I left school,” says Elgatian. “The next day, I met with the dean of students to discuss my absence. He called my mother, asked if she knew where I had been, told both of us that an unexcused absence results in a day of Saturday school (detention on a Saturday morning). I treasure this experience because it shows so clearly that not only do we have these rights, but we also have responsibilities to those rights and we need to be able to contemplate and weigh the options we have. In Ms. Malcom’s class we not only can name these rights, but we apply them to our lives.”

Students Stand Up

Linda Beckstead, journalism and English teacher at West Bellevue High School in Nebraska, had a direct confrontation with her administration that provided her students with a first-hand experience of First Amendment protections. A few years ago, the school paper had been operating with prior review, meaning the principal reviewed the paper before it was printed. He pulled a story about Wicca, a religion based at least in part on ancient Celtic society and worship of the natural world, and one about gay students with parents in the military.

“It was classic Hazelwood,” says Beckstead, referring to the Supreme Court case that gave school administrators more power to censor school papers. [See sidebar at the end of this article.] In Beckstead’s case, the stories were pulled the day of publication with no prior discussion. She “returned the problem to the students,” who chose to appeal the principal’s decision. The students produced a 100-page document with court cases supporting their position, and ultimately changed the principal’s mind. While it was too late to run the articles, it did start a professional relationship between the administrator and Beckstead, as well as the students, which continues.

“As a result we’ve had more things published, more support from the administration, and a tremendous respect, me for him and him for what I do,” says Beckstead.

The next time a similar incident came up at Beckstead’s school, the principal and Beckstead had a dialogue and the students came up with a solution that achieved what the students wanted but that the principal also felt comfortable with. In that case, the student editor wanted to conduct a survey about how students defined sex (prompted by a current event, the President Clinton/Monica Lewinsky incident). The principal was uncomfortable with the language in the survey. Beckstead returned to the editor with this concern and the editor pulled the survey, but instead wrote a column about the need for better sex education, which was really the goal of the survey in the first place.

This year West Bellevue High received the Cornerstone Award from the Journalism Education Association and the Newspaper Association of America Foundation. The award recognizes schools that have shown that their students, teachers, and administrators thoroughly understand the importance of the First Amendment.

Better Understanding

In schools, First Amendment infringements often come from administrators who do not trust students to make mature decisions or are afraid of broaching controversial topics.

“The more administrators understand the overall use of the First Amendment and that it doesn’t mean students get to print anything they want, the better experience for everyone,” says Malcolm. “The bottom line is, yes, the kids do have control, but if they are taught correctly, the kids honestly become very responsible.”

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, agrees that a school setting is precisely the place for students to practice their rights and responsibilities. In a 2003 issue of The Council Chronicle, he said, “What I sometimes find myself wanting to tell administrators who are so inclined to censor is, ‘You know, the damage these students can do by expressing themselves freely is so much less than the damage you do to them and all students by never giving them the chance to spread their wings. Sure, they can hurt people, but you know, nobody’s going to lose their life over this, and yet what you’re doing is creating an environment where young people think, first, it’s completely appropriate and expected that the government will dictate what is and isn’t news, what can and can’t be said and read, and second, you’re teaching them don’t trust yourself, don’t think for yourself, but rather, let somebody else tell you what to think. Again, I think that’s much more damaging in the long run.’”

Beckstead, for one, has observed a huge shift in how the student newspaper is viewed at her school. It used to be, she said, that other teachers would put the paper up just to correct grammatical errors. Now, she says, they use the stories in the paper as a springboard to discuss controversial topics in English and social studies classes.

“Students need to understand that their high school is like the community, the state, the nation, and the world,” says Pearson. “The same basic principles apply to all of these because there will always be a minority voice that needs to be heard and respected. Kids my age need to learn about how precious the First Amendment really is. My generation is taking it for granted while people in other countries are dying for the right to speak freely."

Deb Aronson is a freelance writer based in Urbana, Illinois.

See below for these related sidebars:

  • The Future of the First Amendment
  • Two Free Speech Cases Decided by the Supreme Court

The Future of the First Amendment

The Future of the First Amendment, released January 2005 by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, surveyed 100,000 high school students, some 8,000 teachers, and more than 500 administrators and principals at 544 high schools across the U.S.

The results were not encouraging, according to the report, which states that many schools “are failing their students when it comes to instilling in them an appreciation for the First Amendment.” Among the findings: seventy-five percent of students surveyed think flag burning is illegal, and three out of four students either say they “do not think about the First Amendment” or say they take their First Amendment rights “for granted.” Knight Foundation president, Hodding Carter III, commented that the results “are not only disturbing; they are dangerous. Ignorance about the basics of this free society is a danger to our nation’s future.”

Other findings included the following:

  • Students are less likely than adults to think that people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions or newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories.
  • Students lack knowledge and understanding about key aspects of the First Amendment. Nearly half erroneously believe the government can restrict indecent material on the Internet.
  • Students who do not participate in any media-related activities are less likely to think that people should be allowed to burn or deface the American flag. Students who have taken more media and/or First Amendment classes are more likely to agree that people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions.
  • Students participating in student-run newspapers are more likely to believe that students should be allowed to report controversial issues without approval of school authorities than students who do not participate in student newspapers.
  • Most administrators say they would like to see their school expanding existing student media, but lack of financial resources is the main obstacle.

—from the Executive Summary, The Future of the First Amendment. Read findings from the report at or download the full report from

Two Free Speech Cases Decided by the Supreme Court

Two cases are frequently cited in connection with student free speech issues—Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District and Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier.

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District involved junior high and high school students from Des Moines, Iowa, who were suspended for wearing black armbands to school to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The resulting lawsuit was decided on February 24, 1969, when the Supreme Court ruled that the Des Moines schools violated the First Amendment rights of the students. The Court held that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier was decided in 1988 when the Supreme Court ruled against Cathy Kuhlmeier and two other former students of Hazelwood East High School. The students had claimed that their First Amendment rights were violated when, in May of 1983, principal Robert E. Reynolds instructed them not to publish two articles planned for the school-sponsored newspaper, The Spectrum. In this case, the Court held “that a school need not tolerate student speech that is inconsistent with its basic educational mission, even though the government could not censor similar speech outside the school.”

However, the guide to the Hazelwood decision on the Student Press Law Center website explains that this decision does not apply to all high school publications, but only to those that are not public forums for expression by students. The guide also points out that “school officials were not given limitless authority under Hazelwood. They still have the burden of justifying their censorship under this ‘valid educational purpose’ standard.” In addition, some states have their own state laws or administrative codes that provide student free expression rights. (See “Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier: A Complete Guide to the Supreme Court Decision” under the Press Freedom and Censorship area on the Student Press Law Center website.)

For more information and resources, visit the Student Press Law Center at

Related resources are also available from the Journalism Education Association at

For a summary of legal discussion relevant to school selection policies, read “Selection and Retention of Instructional Materials—What the Courts Have Said” (SLATE Starter Sheet, August 1995) at

Two NCTE resolutions related to student free speech are available at

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