The Free Speech Center

First Amendment News and Insights from MTSU

Lessons in Liberty

First Amendment hypotheticals for classroom use, developed in partnership with the Poynter Institute's Press Pass program

Lesson No. 6 

Fan expelled for holding a tasteless sign

Should a student who displays a questionable sign at a sporting event be punished?  

This hypothetical case study was developed in partnership with the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University

Before class (5 minutes)

Read “W&J Expels Student for ‘Disrespectful’ Sign at Game” from Inside Higher Ed.

Class time needed

15 minutes

Learning objectives

At the conclusion of this activity, participants will be able to:

Hypothetical

You are a photographer for your student newspaper. Your small private school’s women’s basketball team is having a record season, and more people are attending women’s games than men’s games. In fact, if things keep going well, your team might enjoy a deep run in the NCAA tournament, maybe even having a shot at the Final Four or a national title.

It’s a very exciting time to be a fan, and in fact the team and coaches credit the raucous, supportive crowd as one of their keys to success. However, the small school doesn’t have a gym big enough to hold the big crowds, so this year the college has been playing at a larger arena owned by the city. 

During one of the season’s last games, you notice a fan of your college in the crowd holding up a posterboard sign that says, “First and Main!!!” You’re not sure what it means, but you snap a photo and it ends up running on the front page of your school newspaper. 

You find out later that the sign references an intersection where the mother of one of the opposing team’s players was recently killed — she was struck by a hit-and-run driver while crossing the street. People are outraged at the tasteless “joke,” and the university is flooded with calls condemning the student and the photo.

Your university ends up expelling the student, who in turn files a suit against both you and the paper, alleging that his First Amendment rights were violated. He is seeking readmittance to the university, and monetary damages from you for taking and publishing the photo. 

Discussion questions

  1. Do you think the student will win his case against the school? Why or why not?
  2. What about his case against the student photographer? Why or why not?
  3. Does the First Amendment protect speech that is not uttered but in this case written and held up?
  4. How might this case play out differently if the school were a public school instead of a private one?
  5. The sign and the photo both came from inside a public facility, not a private school building. Does that fact affect the nature of this case at all?

Case briefs:

West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District

Pickering v. Board of Education

 

 

Lesson No. 5

Can we forget what I said on Twitter?

Some college admissions officers consider social media posts when offering spots to students. Are their First Amendment rights being violated?

Before/during class (10 minutes)

Read “College Admissions: The Complete Guide to Social Media” (Kaplan)

Class time needed

20 minutes

Learning objectives

At the conclusion of this activity, participants will be able to:

Hypothetical

You’ve heard for years that your behavior on social media could influence your future job prospects. But what about your past? Is there a chance that your high school social media presence influenced your college admission? Many universities report checking social media as a way to help make admission decisions, and confirm that they have denied admission to students in part on the basis of their social media presences.

Especially after the murder of George Floyd, schools made headlines when they denied admission to prospective students after discovering racist posts in those students’ past.

Admissions officers may find something offensive or think that posts, likes and shares indicate negative character traits.

Here are six made-up social media posts made by fake prospective students who’ve applied to a state university. View each one and answer the following two questions:

  1. Does this post represent a legitimate ground for denying enrollment? Why or why not?
  2. Would refusal to admit this student because of these posts violate the First Amendment? Explain your answer.

 

 

 

For further reading

Read “The First Amendment, Social Media and College Admissions” by Frank LoMonte, Inside Higher Ed

As Racist Posts Circulate, Some Colleges Rescind Admission Offers. Others Say Their Hands Are Tied. (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Colleges Rescinding Admissions Offers as Racist Social Media Posts Emerge (New York Times)

 

Lesson No. 4

Photo courtesy iStock: encrier

Getting a say on campus

Are private beliefs hosted in a public forum considered protected speech?

Before/during class (10 minutes)

Read Public Forum Doctrine (First Amendment Encyclopedia)

Class time needed

20 minutes

Learning objectives

At the conclusion of this activity, participants will be able to:

Hypothetical

You attend a large, four-year public university in midwestern America. 

One of the school’s longest-standing traditions is a three-part bulletin board in the main entrance lobby of the Student Union. 

On the left is a map of the world with pins that represent the hometowns of the current student body. There are pins in almost every state in America, and many international pins. 

On the right is a map of the state your university is in and a written history, along with some historical photos. Your university was the first public university in the state, and so it plays an important role in its history.

The middle display changes each week to showcase different student organizations, which are selected by a competitive application process. Once an organization is selected, the members of that organization have creative freedom to design an engaging and informative display about their group.

The Crusaders create their display, explaining that they are an interdenominational organization of Christians dedicated to “bringing Christ to all people.” Their display includes information that they believe the Bible is the written word of God and that their mission is to bring all people to come to love Jesus. The biggest feature of the display centers on their efforts to bring relief and aid to Middle Eastern women threatened by the Taliban and other authoritarian regimes. 

After just one day, the university removes The Crusaders’ display, citing the First Amendment’s “establishment clause,” which prevents the government from promoting one religion over another. No other organization has ever been asked to remove its display.

The group asks the university to restore the display, and the university refuses. 

The Crusaders announce plans to sue the university for violating its free-speech rights. After all, in the past, displays included organizations like Fellowship for Christian Athletes and Atheists of America.

Discussion questions

  1. Is the Student Union lobby at a state university a traditional public forum? What about the bulletin board in the lobby — does it qualify as public or nonpublic?
  2. Whose views do you think are represented by the display: the student organization whose information is posted, or the government’s (the university’s)?
  3. Depending on your answer to the above, how do you think a court will rule — in favor of the organization’s right to display or the university’s right to deny them space so that a government entity (the university) isn’t promoting one religion over others?
  4. What other kinds of speech (or in this case a display) might be banned in this kind of place? Why?

For further reading

Can a Christian flag fly at City Hall? The Supreme Court will have to decide (The Conversation)

Government Speech Doctrine (First Amendment Encyclopedia)

Forums (Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School)

 

NYPD photo via AP

 

Lesson No. 3

Is it OK to film the police?

Citizens are increasingly able to capture police action in real time. Journalists should know the rules about when and where it’s legal.

This hypothetical case study is brought to you for free by the Free Speech Center at the Middle Tennessee State University, in partnership with the Poynter Institute and its Press Pass series.

Before class (30 minutes)

Read/watch:

Class time needed

30 minutes

Learning objectives

At the conclusion of this activity, participants will be able to:

Hypothetical situation

You are a news videographer with a local TV station. Your assignment is to spend the day with a Black Lives Matter activist, getting B-roll of a normal day in his life.

On the day you are filming him, you’re riding in the front seat of his car when you both notice police lights just outside a mall and several police vehicles. The activist pulls into the parking lot and sees a young black man in cuffs on the ground. He quickly parks and hops out of the car, walking briskly toward the group of officers who are standing on the sidewalk in front of the mall’s main entrance. You follow with your professional camera gear (which is marked with your station’s call letters) rolling and notice that there is also a woman standing outside filming the scene with her cell phone.

The activist asks the police, “What’s going on here? Why is this young man on the ground in handcuffs?”

An officer nearby turns to the activist and tells him to mind his own business. The activist persists in questioning the officers, who to this point haven’t seemed to mind the cameras. As tensions rise, one officer yells out, “You need to turn your cameras off.”

You continue rolling, as does the woman with the cell phone. You see two officers consult with each other and then walk over to the handcuffed person and bring him to his feet before marching him into the mall.

You follow with your camera rolling, as does the woman with the cell phone. The activist is right ahead of you, continuing to ask the officers why the young man is being detained.

As soon as the party is within the confines of the interior of the mall, the officer again looks at you and yells, “Turn the camera off or I will arrest you all!” At that moment another officer uses a Taser on the cuffed suspect after he apparently tries to run away.

The woman with the cell phone appears to turn her camera away, and the activist pleads with you to please turn your camera off.

Discussion questions

  1. What First Amendment right(s) are in play here?
  2. Do you turn your camera off when the activist asks you to do so? What is your rationale for leaving it on or turning it off?
  3. Did you have a right to film the police when you were outside? What about when you were inside the mall?
  4. What should you do if a law enforcement officer tells you to stop filming?
  5. What about if they tell you to hand over your card, film or equipment?

For further reading:

Supreme Court could review case involving filming of police using force (Free Speech Center)

Photography and First Amendment (Freedom Forum Institute)

NPPA Police Model Guidelines (National Press Photographers Association)

Privacy (Free Speech Center)

 

Lesson No. 2

Taking a knee for free speech

If students kneel during the national anthem, can their schools punish them for disruptive expression?

This hypothetical case study is brought to you for free by the Free Speech Center at the Middle Tennessee State University, in partnership with the Poynter Institute and its Press Pass series.

Before class (30 minutes)

Read/watch:

Class time needed

30 minutes

Learning objectives

At the conclusion of this activity, participants will be able to:

Hypothetical

You are a student reporter for your high school newspaper, sent to cover your school’s homecoming basketball game. You attend a public school but the game is against your biggest rival, the private Catholic school in town.

You arrive at the gym and take your seat near the announcer, so you’ve got a great view of the home-team bleachers and both teams’ benches. You’re excited to cover the game because you got a tip that the two team captains are good friends, having played club ball together since they were young.

But before the game even starts, members of both teams take a knee during the national anthem, engaging in the silent protest against police brutality popularized by former NFL player Colin Kaepernick. An assistant coach on your team also takes a knee next to the players; the other coaches remain standing.

People in the crowd don’t seem to know how to react. Most people are standing up with their hats off and their hands over their hearts. Some are singing. A few boos are heard, and one teacher from your school stands up and extends both middle fingers to the players on the floor for the entirety of their protest.

The game goes on after the silent protests, and you visit with the fans, players and coaches for your story. You discover that the two friends coordinated the effort to get their teammates to kneel, but that they are expecting repercussions from the schools — they all feel they are well within their free-speech rights. 

Later, you read in the local paper that the Catholic school has suspended its team captain for a week for coordinating the protest, and reprimanded the other players. Now there are calls for the team captain of your public school to be suspended “for disrespecting the flag.” One conservative radio host in town has called for the kneeling coach to be fired, while a liberal radio host has called for the teacher who flipped off the students to be fired or reprimanded. 

Discussion questions

  1. How should the principal and superintendent of your public high school react to calls for them to suspend your school’s team captain?
  2. What about the teacher who flipped off the students, or the coach who kneeled — are the public school officials within their rights to take personnel action against the two employees?
  3. Was the Catholic school within its rights to suspend its basketball team captain?
  4. What if your team captain (like all other athletes at your school) signed an agreement holding him to higher standards of conduct than other students?
  5. Do public school students have more rights to free expression than NFL players? Why or why not? 
  6. The First Amendment specifically addresses the freedom of “speech,” but no words were uttered by the players. Are their actions still considered protected? 

Court decisions

West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District

Pickering v. Board of Education

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Lesson 1A header_Rap music.jpgGraphic by Leslie Haines

Lesson No. 1A

Taking the rap for murder

A young rapper was convicted of murdering a local hero. His lyrics and video were included as evidence. Is that fair?

Before/during class (15 minutes)

*Please note that the optional music-video viewing assignment contains racial slurs and profanity. Please watch the video yourself before assigning to your students and decide if it is appropriate for their consumption privately. 

Class time needed

30 minutes

Learning objectives

At the conclusion of this activity, participants will be able to:

Issue overview

In December 2015, a 15-year-old high schooler in Knoxville, Tenn., was shot and killed when he shielded female friends from gunfire. Zaevion Dobson’s compelling act of courage was subsequently honored by President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address, and Dobson was posthumously honored by ESPN with its Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

Three men were tried in connection with his slaying. One, Christopher Bassett, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison plus 35 years on a related charge. Two co-defendants got more than 100 years behind bars each.

The ACLU wrote: “Rap music, in trial after trial, has been treated as inherently incriminating. ... At trial, the state showed the jury a rap video featuring Bassett as evidence against him, despite the fact that the videos were recorded months before the murder and make no mention of the victim. Prosecutors argued that Bassett’s sometimes violent and graphic imagery was a confession in song.”

This is not the only case your students may be familiar with. In Florida, rapper YNW Melly was arrested after the 2018 shooting deaths of two of his friends — with authorities citing his song “Murder on My Mind” (warning: video includes graphic imagery and profanity) in their case against him, despite its having been released 18 months before the slayings. And in Maryland, a top court ruled that rap lyrics can be used as evidence in court to prove defendants guilty.

As veteran music-industry attorney Dina LaPolt wrote recently in her Variety column, “Rap Lyrics Now Admissible as Court Evidence: A Dangerous Precedent,” “I would invite anyone suggesting that this ruling is not limited to rap music to find an example of a court admitting lyrical evidence of a country singer driving drunk or shooting a cheating spouse.”

On the other hand, courts frequently allow past statements to come into court as evidence. Should that change because the statement has a beat?

The ACLU wrote, in describing its decision to file an amicus brief for Bassett, “Tennessee’s use of ‘Double O’ lyrics as evidence at trial is not only an illegal violation of constitutional free-speech and free-association rights, but would discourage artistic expression in the future. ... If this precedent is allowed to stand, no one who has ever spit a rhyme is safe.”

Discussion questions:

  1. What do you think of the prosecution’s decision to show the video to jurors?
  2. Do you think the First Amendment should protect artistic expression in this instance? Why or why not? Do you think the judge should have kept the song out of the courtroom on First Amendment grounds?
  3. What are the future implications for artists who want to express their experiences through music, even if it includes violence?
  4. Think about some of your favorite artists and songs. Do you consider their lyrics  to be autobiographical and factual, or do you assume that their creators are taking liberties with their life experiences, or both?
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