Lesson Plan

The First Amendment in Public Schools

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GRADE LEVEL: High School

COMMON CORE STANDARDS: Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, Language

“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

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.

Do Students Support 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.

About this Curriculum Unit

ADL, in partnership with the Philadelphia Bar Association, offers this high school grade 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. Though the lessons in this unit build upon one another, each lesson can also be easily adapted to stand alone.

About the Lesson Plans

What is the First Amendment?

Students to learn what the First Amendment is and why it is important to them today. They will compare and contrast the rights provided in the First Amendment with freedoms found or not found in other countries around the world.

Religious Freedoms in Public Schools

Religious freedom is a sensitive, but critical, subject in developing an understanding of the rights of U.S. citizens. The purpose of this lesson is to encourage critical thinking skills and open-minded thinking with regard to religious freedom and the tensions that exist around this Constitutional right. Students will focus on their own constitutional rights as they relate to religious freedom in public schools.

Freedom of Speech and the Press in Public Schools

Students explore two specific aspects of freedom of expression rights in public schools—freedom of speech and freedom of the press. They learn about three landmark Supreme Court precedents regarding freedom of expression, then explore the myths and misinformation surrounding the issue of free speech and press by polling adults and peers on the subject.

Freedom to Assemble and to Petition

Students learn that the First Amendment guarantees the right of people to peacefully assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. They learn that these rights cover a large spectrum of common political practices such as protesting, marching, demonstrating and lobbying, and apply this learning by developing a plan for organizing around a current issue of interest to them.


[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. https://kf-site-production.s3.amazonaws.com/publications/pdfs/000/000/125/original/2006_Future_of_First_Amendment_1.pdf.

[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. https://knightfoundation.org/reports/future-of-the-first-amendment-2016-survey-of-high-school-students-and-teachers.