What’s It All About?
An Introduction to the First Amendment

  Beginning (upper elementary/middle school)
  Social Studies, Language Arts

This lesson gives students a broad overview of First Amendment principles as a starting point for other lessons (for middle and high school students) that treat the subject with greater depth.

A goal here, as with all the lessons, is to make the First Amendment personal, to help students understand that America’s first freedoms belong to them — as they belong to everyone.

Some of the ideas contained in this lesson will be suitable for all students; others are geared for more able students or for those who want to pursue independent study. Please feel free to make selections from these offerings to suit your students’ needs and interests. You may find that “First Moments” and/or Parts A, B, C and D can stand alone as shorter classroom activities.

Key concepts:

  • The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides individuals with important personal freedoms. Throughout history, people — some well known and some not — have exercised their right to those freedoms in various ways.
  • Students also have First Amendment freedoms. The ability to express oneself and the right to be heard are essential components of freedom.
  • The First Amendment teaches us to respect the viewpoints of others and to allow others to express their views, even though we may disagree with the ideas being expressed.
First Principles
You may want to familiarize yourself with the “First Principles,”. The list of First Principles was developed for older students and is good background information for teachers who want to be able to explain in practical, everyday terms just what the First Amendment means.

Read the explanations for the principles listed below. They have special relevance to the activities in this lesson.

  • The First Amendment affirms the freedom of the individual.
  • Free expression is the foundation — the cornerstone — of democracy.
  • Other people have rights, too.
First moments
There are many good ways to help students learn to respect the beliefs and ideas of others. You might visit the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Web site for classroom activities, some specifically geared to understanding and respecting differences among peoples.

For a brief introduction to one of the freedoms protected by the First Amendment, present the following case study to your students:

Until the early 1970s, children in Wisconsin were required to attend school until they were 16. But members of the Amish religion did not want their children to attend school after grade 8. Instead, the Amish wanted children to stay in their communities, learning the jobs they would have as adults. When one 15-year-old Amish girl didn’t return to school after finishing grade 8, state officials tried to force her parents to send her to school.

Ask: Can they do that?
Talk with students generally about what freedom of religion means. Explain that the First Amendment to the Constitution protects us from having the government (federal, state or local) interfere with the way we practice our religion. Sometimes the courts decide there is a “compelling state interest” that justifies the regulation of some religious practices, but for the most part, individuals are free to follow their own religious beliefs and practices. In the Wisconsin case, the Supreme Court ruled that the Amish family could not be forced to send their daughter to two years of secondary school in violation of their religious beliefs.

Part A: Brainstorming
Present this hypothetical situation to the class:
Imagine you are a member of a group of people with an important message. You want as many people as possible to hear about it. The message could be about a coming event — a student-run car wash to raise money for your school’s soccer team, for instance — or it could be about an important social issue, such as stopping gun violence, helping homeless people or even fighting a proposed youth curfew in your town.

Don’t worry about money; imagine you have enough to cover printing, mailing and maybe even placing your message on TV or the radio. Brainstorm for a few minutes about ways to communicate. Try to think of as many different approaches as you can to get your message out to as many people as possible. Be creative!

Ask students to brainstorm, as a group, for about five minutes, about various techniques they might use to get their message out. Post these rules for brainstorming:

  • Say anything that comes to mind.
  • Piggybacking on the ideas of others is good.
  • Don’t evaluate or criticize what others say.
  • When you can’t think of anything else, wait a minute and try again.

How many ways of publicizing their message did students name?  List them on the chalkboard.

Try to encourage a wide range of thinking about forms of expression. If your students haven’t thought of these approaches, you might add:

  • Printed messages or advertisements in newspapers and magazines.
  • Broadcasts on radio or television.
  • Advertising jingles.
  • U.S. mail.
  • Leaflets distributed on car windows, posted along highways, taped onto mailboxes.
  • T-shirts, bumper stickers, buttons.
  • Internet messages, e-mail or text messages.
  • Individuals standing on street corners or in public places and talking about the message, marching or demonstrating or wearing sandwich boards.
  • Graffiti, bulletin boards, billboards
  • Facebook page
  • Community newsletter
  • Messages on the sides of milk cartons.

Wrap up the brainstorming activity with these points:

  • We have many, many ways of making our viewpoints known. In the United States, our freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.
  • Just as it protects our freedom of religion (as discussed in the Wisconsin case) and our freedom of speech, the First Amendment offers other freedoms: freedom of the press, freedom to gather in groups and associate with others of our choosing (assembly), and the right to ask the government to correct what we believe is wrong (petition for redress of grievances).
  • Just as we tried to convey in the brainstorming activity, it’s a good idea to respect the right of other people to hold their viewpoints. We should listen to what they have to say in all our activities and throughout our everyday lives. Very often we do not agree with other people’s ideas; sometimes we find what they have to say distasteful or disagreeable or just plain wrong. But people are entitled to hold these ideas. We (and especially representatives of our government) do not have the right to control or suppress ideas and beliefs we find offensive.
Part B: The First Amendment
The First Amendment Explained contains the text of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, followed by some broad explanations of what the words mean. Print this page out and distribute it, or direct your students to the link.

You also may want to browse the First Amendment Center web site for general information on the First Amendment and for stories about specific First Amendment issues currently being addressed by our nation’s courts and in our communities.

It may help to point out to students that some important words in the First Amendment are “Congress shall make no law…” The people who founded our country believed passionately in individual freedom — in the rights of citizens to be protected from a government that was too controlling. Our government can’t tell us what to read, what to think, where to pray or even whether to pray.

Ask students to name some specific examples of how they, their family members or people whom they know have exercised their First Amendment rights, as described in “The First Amendment Explained.”

First Amendment Rights in Everyday Life is a worksheet that will give students additional practice identifying examples of people using their First Amendment rights.

Answers: 1. Press 2. Speech 3. Assembly 4. Speech
5. Religion 6. Religion 7. Petition 8. Press 9. Press.

You also may want to have a discussion with students about symbolic speech: Wearing armbands as a symbol of support for political prisoners (example #4) is an example.

Students can find examples in the community, in school, in print (from newspapers and magazines) on TV or the Internet of people exercising their First Amendment rights. Students can create a classroom bulletin board or other display showing the many ways we see First Amendment rights in action. Students also can bring in examples of the many forms of expression they listed in the brainstorming activity (Part A, above).

Part C: First Amendment Heroes
Our First Amendment freedoms are perhaps the most powerful guarantee we have that our views can be heard, even if they are unpopular. Indeed, exercise of First Amendment rights by citizens with unpopular (minority) views often has brought about great social change.

Your students probably will define heroes as people who are brave, who have shown themselves, through their actions, to be courageous. You may want to have a general discussion of qualities of people they consider heroes. In the following exercise, they’ll read short stories about “First Amendment heroes,” people who were not afraid to speak their minds or act on principles they believed were important.

The Story of Cesar Chavez
The Story of Rosa Parks
The Story of Thomas Waring
The Story of Martin Luther King Jr.
The Story of Ida B. Wells
The Story of Bridget Mergens
The Story of Maya Lin
The Story of Sequoyah

Divide the class into small groups. Each group should take one story. One student should read the story aloud to the other members of the group or all should have a chance to read it silently. As a group, students should discuss what First Amendment right the person was exercising. Explain to students that the subjects of their stories may well be exercising more than one First Amendment right — and, of course, that there often is overlap among these rights. You may want to talk briefly about artistic expression as a form of speech (if you think students who read Maya Lin’s story might have trouble making this connection).

Here are some questions to help stimulate student discussion:

  • What First Amendment right or rights did your First Amendment hero use?
  • Did this person do something that was unpopular at the time? How did people react?
  • Did the person’s views come to be shared by a larger number of Americans? By a majority of Americans?
  • Do you think that exercising his or her First Amendment rights caused this person — or his or her family — to change? In what ways?

Have a spokesperson from each group summarize the story and explain what First Amendment right it demonstrated.

For your information, here are some First Amendment rights the heroes’ stories illustrate:

Cesar Chavez:  Speech, assembly, petition
Rosa Parks:   Speech, assembly, petition
Thomas Waring:   Religion, speech, assembly
Martin Luther King Jr.: Speech, assembly, petition
Ida B. Wells:    Press
Bridget Mergens:    Religion, speech
Maya Lin:   Speech
Sequoyah: Speech, press

Part D: How To Be a First Amendment Hero
This section brings the First Amendment back to the personal level, reminding students that they, too, can exercise their rights in a number of ways. Once again, you may want to do a brainstorming activity. Following the examples of the people profiled in Part C, ask students to list ways in which they can become First Amendment heroes. Some ideas to help them get started:

  • Speak out when you see injustices.
  • Be tolerant of the ideas of others; allow others to speak their minds.
  • Use words, not violence, to fight against ideas and actions with which you disagree.
  • Have confidence in your ideas; don’t be afraid to express them.

You might post students’ recommendations in your classroom on a poster or display titled “How To Be a First Amendment Hero.” Students might add to the display pictures of or stories about current-day people who are First Amendment heroes because they are speaking out against injustices they see.


  1. Interested students might prepare more polished presentations depicting the stories of First Amendment heroes studied in this lesson. The dramatizations could then be videotaped for use in other classes.

  2. Students might conduct a poll of adults in the community (in school and at home) to see how many can list the rights protected by the First Amendment. If students find that many adults cannot identify the rights, they might write letters to the editor of the local newspaper or create posters to display at school describing what they have found.

  3. Students might do research on press freedom in other countries. For example, they might find out more about Wei Jingsheng, a Chinese journalist who was sentenced to 14 years in prison for writing and speaking about democracy and human rights. Or they might learn about Pius Njawe, the editor of a newspaper in Cameroon who served a six-month prison sentence for allegedly insulting his country’s president in editorials and satirical cartoons. Where are these people now? Students might spend a few weeks looking in newspapers and magazines and on the Internet for similar stories. For example, the International Press Institute names press freedom “heroes” of the past 60 years. Pius Njawe of Cameroon is one.

  4. Here are some additional topics for further exploration you might assign your students:

    — Learn about the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Why did the framers of the Constitution think a Bill of Rights was necessary? What are the 10 amendments included in the Bill of Rights? Pick one of the 10 (including the First Amendment) and look for examples — throughout history and including the present — that show how that amendment affects our lives.

    — Who is the author of the Bill of Rights? (James Madison.) Find out how many amendments originally were proposed for the Bill of Rights. (Madison drafted 17; of those, Congress passed 12 amendments and 10 of those were approved by the states. The two that were not approved dealt with congressional size and compensation.)

    — Analyze this phrase: There is a “wall of separation between church and state.” Who first said that? What does it mean? (Thomas Jefferson; it characterizes the First Amendment principle that government may not act as if it is establishing or even favoring any one religion and may not interfere with an individual’s practice [free exercise] of his or her religion.)

  5. Now that you’ve studied the rights protected by the First Amendment, think of a way to remember them. Write a poem, rap song, ballad or advertising jingle that will tell someone else all about the rights we have under the First Amendment. Or, working with a partner, create a slogan for a bumper sticker or button that expresses something about the First Amendment.

On the Web

"Panelists relate First Amendment struggles, triumphs"
Read about Daniel Ellsberg, Mary Beth Tinker, Alton T. Lemon and the NAACP suit against segregation in Virginia.

Constitution Day
Visit the National Archives and Records Administration site for activities, lesson plans and other information on celebrating September 12, including a study of the U.S. Constitution in your classroom.

Court Documents Related to Martin Luther King, Jr., and Memphis Sanitation Workers
National Archives and Records Administration lesson plan for use of primary documents.

Maya Lin: Ancient & Modern
More information on the artist, including her biography, vision and a gallery of her projects.

Cesar E. Chavez Foundation
More on Chavez’ life and work, including articles, interviews, speeches and a photo gallery.

Sequoyah Birthplace Museum
Site includes information on Sequoyah, the Trail of Tears and Cherokee language.

Ida B. Wells
Information on Ida B. Wells’ life and writings, including video lectures.

Rosa Parks
A Library of Congress guide to Rosa Parks resource in the collection and online.

About the First Amendment: Selected Readings for Elementary and Middle School Students
This list offers suggestions of books – both fiction and non-fiction – that will deepen your students’ understanding of the First Amendment.

National Standards
History K-4, Standard 4 — Understands how democratic values came to be and how they have been exemplified by people, events and symbols.

United States History, Standard 29: Understands the struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties.

Civics, Standard 9: Understands the importance of Americans sharing and supporting certain values, beliefs, and principles of American constitutional democracy.

Language Arts, Standard 5: Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process.