The First Amendment in Public Schools

Social Justice
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Grade Level:
High School
Common Core Standards:
Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, Language
Social Justice

“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.” —First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America Share via Twitter Share via Facebook

These 45 words make up the First Amendment. The words haven’t changed since they were adopted by the United States as part of the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791. Thus, for over 200 years the First Amendment has been the cornerstone of freedom in the United States. Commonly referred to as the “five freedoms,” the First Amendment has aided Americans in exercising their rights to work for a more free and just society.

The First Amendment’s guaranteed freedoms of speech, religion, the press, association and petition were a radical and revolutionary departure from a world in which state-imposed religious persecution, censorship and oppression was the norm.

Every important struggle for social justice has involved the First Amendment in one way or another. The abolitionist, suffragette, civil rights, women’s, child labor, environmental, LGBT and disability rights movements have all relied on the First Amendment.

In 2006, a poll conducted by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation disturbingly found that nearly three-fourths of U.S. high school students took the First Amendment and its protections for granted or were unsure how they felt about them.[1] In 2016, the Foundation found that the increasing use of digital and social media has increased student support of the First Amendment. And more significantly, the percentage gap of adults (76%) being twice as likely as students (37%) in 2006 to disagree that the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees has narrowed. Student support for the First Amendment has increased to 56% in 2016 while adult support is primarily the same (75%).[2]

Schools should be a place where students learn about democracy, but more importantly they should be a place where students live in a democracy. The Anti-Defamation League, in partnership with the Philadelphia Bar Association, offers this curriculum on the First Amendment as a way to immerse and engage students in an exploration of how their freedoms originated and how they function today.


[1] Yalof, D., and Dautrich, K. (2006). "Future of the First Amendment: What America’s High School Students Think About Their Freedoms. Miami: The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

[2] Dautrich, K. (2017). Future of the First Amendment: 2016 Survey of High School Students and Teachers. Miami: The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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