First Amendment lesson plan: What If There Were No First Amendment?
Appropriate academic subjects
Suitable for classes in government, civics, and English.
Various legislative efforts have been made at the state and federal levels to amend or limit First Amendment protections for a variety of reasons, often in the name of “truthfulness” or of reform of campaign-finance law. Among the public, support for First Amendment freedoms remains strong, but wavers within some groups on certain types of controversial speech.
The purpose of this exercise is to instill in students a greater understanding and appreciation for the freedoms the First Amendment guarantees and protects – by asking them to envision life in the United States without some or all of those freedoms.
The types of expression protected by the First Amendment. The First Amendment reads:
“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.”
One class session.
Prepare students for the topic by assigning readings from the recommended list and/or from other sources.
Lead a discussion on First Amendment principles to ensure grasp and understanding. Briefly review, from the readings below, the five freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment – speech, press, religion, assembly, and petition.
Make clear that a lack of First Amendment guarantees could result in legislative and other legal action to punish speakers, writers, adherents to particular religions, rally organizers and participants, and people seeking to complain to the government about perceived wrongs.
Ask students to think of and state examples of forms of expression that would be at risk without First Amendment protections. For prompting purposes, these could include:
- Speech: Certain instances of political expression could be punished by law, according to supposed local or even national normative opinions concerning abortion, race/affirmative action, climate change, police conduct, workers’ rights, religious viewpoints, or women’s rights. Encourage students to keep in mind that “political expression” can take the form of songs, films, novels, plays, and other forms of speech.
- Press: Similarly, written or broadcast opinions, or even news reports striving for objectivity, could be subject to legal action beyond libel for presenting disputed facts or unpopular viewpoints. Refer to a newspaper or news website and consider whether any articles might invite government punishment without First Amendment cover.
- Religion: Imagine if the U.S. government or states could impose an official religion, prohibit other religions from being practiced, and meddle in theological and ecclesiastical affairs involving worship.
- Assembly: With no First Amendment, protest rallies and marches could be prohibited according to official and/or public whim; membership in certain groups could also be punishable by law.
- Petition: Threats against the right to petition the government often take the form of SLAPP suits (see resource above). These lawsuits target individuals and groups that reach out to government agencies and the public in protest against polluting industries, building projects, farms where animals are abused, etc.
Assign a short essay responding to the classroom discussion. Essays could focus on a specific First Amendment freedom and what society and individual lives would look like if that freedom were curtailed. Or they could take a “bird’s eye” view of political life in the United States with no First Amendment guarantees.
Materials and readings
Reading: First Amendment – by Eugene Volokh, in Encyclopedia Britannica
Survey: Nearly one-quarter of Americans say the First Amendment goes too far in the freedoms it guarantees – First Amendment Center/Newseum Institute
Reading: Trump threatens to weaken First Amendment protections for reporters – by Jeff Horwitz, Associated Press, on PBS.org
Reading: The threat to American democracy – by Sens. Tom Udall and Bernie Sanders, on Politico
Reading: Actually, senators, you’re the ones who threaten the American republic – by David Harsanyi, on The Federalist
Reading: Court rules against Ohio false-statement campaign law – by Andrew Welsh-Huggins, Associated Press, on Cincinnati.com
Resource: SLAPP suits – Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. Civil Liberties Defense Center
Video: Yale students sign petition to end First Amendment – Mediaite
The Soul of the First Amendment, by Floyd Abrams. Yale University Press, 2017.
Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (expanded edition), by Jonathan Rauch. University of Chicago Press, 2014.
Free Speech for Me – But Not for Thee, by Nat Hentoff. HarperCollins, 1992.