Social Education 57(1) pps. 43-44
©1993 National Council for the Social Studies

Teaching the First Amendment to 7th and 8th Graders

Clifford L. Staten
Indiana University Southeast
New Albany, Indiana
This past summer I "returned" to junior high school for the first time in twenty-five years and had a most rewarding experience-for one week I taught nineteen 7th and 8th graders about the First Amendment. I had been asked to participate as a faculty member in the Indiana University Southeast Summer Learning Enrichment Academy, a regional program designed to expose 7th and 8th graders to the various academic disciplines in the university, to stimulate them intellectually, and to show them that learning can be fun.
The prospect of teaching 7th and 8th graders was intimidating. Images of loud and unruly kids began to dance in my head. The first day in class with them lived up to my expectations. Although some of their behavior did not change, I noticed that as the week passed, the students began to discuss and debate the First Amendment among themselves. Furthermore, their writing samples changed from simple, black-and-white arguments to more complex ones. The reason for the change is that the students, playing a participatory role in the learning process, discovered that they could learn from each other and not just from me.

Overview
The following is a brief overview of my objectives and activities with the 7th and 8th graders. The activities were conducted in five one-hour periods.

Objectives
1. To illustrate that the individual rights in the First Amendment often conflict with the rights of society as a whole.

2. To emphasize that democracy in the United States requires that individual rights be given precedence over the rights of society whenever possible.

3. To indicate that when individuals' First Amendment rights conflict with the rights of society as a whole, the courts or, specifically, the Supreme Court must decide which are more important at that particular time.

4. To illustrate that such Supreme Court decisions are never simple or clear-cut.

5. To illustrate that Supreme Court justices may disagree about these decisions, just as others may.

6. To emphasize that interpretations of the First Amendment may change over time.

Activities
1. Characteristics of Democracy (first period)

I asked the students to list three characteristics of democracy. After they finished, I asked them to find a partner, compare lists, and then list four characteristics of democracy. Next, I asked them to get into groups of four, compare lists, and then list five characteristics of democracy. Each group then selected someone to read its list to the rest of the class. I listed each characteristic on the chalkboard and found that the students had cited almost the entire First Amendment. I then read the First Amendment to the students (you will want to provide them with a copy of the First Amendment at this time as well). I asked them the following question: Can we have democracy without freedom of speech, press, assembly, or religion? Most of them said no. I asked them to explain, which facilitated a discussion that lasted the remainder of the period.

2. Why Do We Have Government or What Is It Supposed to Do? (second period)

I asked the students to list three things that the government is supposed to do for the people or society as a whole. After they finished, I asked them to choose a partner, compare lists, and then expand their list to four. Next, I asked them to get into groups of four, compare lists, and then list five things the government is supposed to do. Each group then selected someone to read its list to the rest of class. I transferred their items to the chalkboard. Their lists included such things as providing national defense, maintaining law and order, and seeing to the general welfare of the people. We briefly discussed each of these items.

3. What If Individual Rights Conflict with the Duties of Government toward the People? (second period)

On the chalkboard I listed the individual freedoms of the First Amendment on the left-hand side and the duties of the government toward the people on the right-hand side. I then asked the question, Can these ever conflict with one another? Can individual freedoms threaten the government's ability to carry out its obligation to provide, for example, national security? I asked them to get into groups of three and to think of a hypothetical situation in which such a conflict might occur. (I had to prod them by giving them a possible example.) After each group read aloud its hypothetical situation, I posed the question, Which is more important in your group's case, individual rights or the obligations of the government? I also asked the students to defend their answers. The discussion of this question created a lively debate among the students for the remainder of the period.

4. Role of the Supreme Court (third period)

I pointed out to the class that sometimes the Supreme Court must decide whether individual rights or the obligations of the government are more important. I told them that U.S. Supreme Court justices may disagree, just as the students had earlier disagreed. If that occurs, the Supreme Court issues both a majority and a dissenting opinion. I then divided the class into two "Supreme Courts" and had them sit on opposite sides of the room.

5. Worksheet on Free Speech and Press (third period)

I gave the students a list including items such as the following:

a. A newspaper article that criticizes President Bush.

b. A magazine that shows pictures of a man and a woman having sexual intercourse.

c. A book that says there is no God.

d. An article that says black people are inferior to white people.

e. A newspaper article that might indicate to the Soviet Union where our missiles are located.

f. An article that lists names of U.S. secret agents.

I asked them to determine which of these items were protected by the First Amendment. We discussed each item and I asked the students to defend their answers.

6. Cases on Free Speech and Press (remainder of third and fourth periods)

I gave each Supreme Court four cases (two involving free speech and two involving free press) and charged them with deciding whether they were examples of free speech or free press. On each court, those that agreed with each other got together as a group, compared reasons, and wrote an essay defending their position. Each student signed the opinion. Each court wrote both a majority and a dissenting opinion, and read its opinions to the entire class. Two sample cases are listed below:

John Smith, an 8th grade student at Scribner Junior High School, was recently suspended from school. John was president of Students for World Peace and had led a rally on campus protesting the U.S. use of armed force in the Persian Gulf. During the rally, he burned the U.S. flag in protest. Most of the students who attended the rally were supportive of John's views and they cheered when he burned the flag. Students who opposed SWP's views for the most part did not attend the rally. The rally was peaceful. Two hours after the rally, John was suspended from school based on his disrespect for and mutilation of the U.S. flag.
Question: Is this an example of free speech that is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution? Why or why not?
Kim Doe, an 8th grade student at Hazelwood Junior High School, was recently suspended from school. Kim was president of Students for World Peace and had organized a rally on campus. During the rally, she burned the U.S. flag as a protest against the use of U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf. As she began to burn the flag, a group of students who supported the U.S. policy in the Gulf started a riot. Several fights broke out and Kim was assaulted. Kim was suspended from school not only because of her disrespect for and mutilation of the U.S. flag, but also for causing a violent riot.
Question: Is this an example of free speech that is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution? Why or why not? Is there a substantive difference between this case and the first case? Explain.

7. Cases on Freedom of Assembly (fourth period)

Noting demonstrations and marches in the streets as examples, I explained to the students that freedom of assembly is closely related to free speech and free press. I then gave them a case involving freedom of assembly. Those that agreed with each other again got together as a group, compared their reasons, and wrote an essay defending their position. Each student signed the opinion. Each court wrote both a majority and a dissenting opinion and read them to the entire class. One sample case is listed below:

The Ku Klux Klan is going to march peacefully through the streets of Jeffersonville. The city manager of Jeffersonville has estimated that it will cost the city ten thousand dollars to provide extra police protection for the Ku Klux Klan to ensure that there will be no violence from groups in the city opposed to the march.
Question: Is this march protected under the KKK's right to free speech and to assemble in a peaceful manner as stated in the First Amendment? Why or why not?

8. What Did You Learn? (final period)

In the final period, students reviewed and discussed some of the issues we had addressed earlier. I assigned each student to write an essay entitled "What I Learned about the First Amendment." At the end of the period, I asked several students to read their essays to the class.

Conclusions
In reading the majority and dissenting opinions over the course of the week, I could see a progression from simple explanations offered in the very first case to more sophisticated explanations in the final case. In addition, it was evident that the active student participation in both the writing and discussion activities had created an awareness among students that they could learn from one another. In the words of one 8th grade student: "Surprisingly, we learned from each other-that each of us can contribute to the learning process, not just the teacher. It was fun." My positive experience with this group led me to adapt the technique for my classes at Indiana University Southeast.