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Hannah Turlish
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Lesson Plans

All Speech is Created Equal?

Investigative Reporting

All Speech is Created Equal?

Hannah Turlish of Riverdale Country School in Bronx, N.Y.

Hannah B. Turlish
Riverdale County School
Bronx, N.Y.

Title: All Speech is Created Equal?

Description of School and Students

The unit will be taught in a 12th grade U.S. government course at a private high school in New York. Average class sizes are about 15 students, but all activities would be just as effective in larger or smaller classes. The unit is also appropriate for use in U.S. history, journalism, law, and current events courses at all levels of academic rigor.

Generative Topic

The First Amendment

Generative Objects

  • “Domino Theory” cartoon
  • Text of the First Amendment

Understanding Goals

  • Essential Question

What is the First Amendment?

  • Critical Engagement Questions
  • Are all forms of speech protected?
  • How is our society shaped by the First Amendment?
  • Do First Amendment “rules” change when America is at war?
  • Have court interpretations of the First Amendment changed over time?
  • How will new technologies effect the First Amendment?

Rationale and Activities

Without knowledge of the First Amendment, it is virtually impossible to understand what makes the United States such a uniquely free and constantly evolving society. Students need to recognize the First Amendment’s principles, which lie at the center of American philosophy, and to consider cases in which the right of free speech has been tested. In this unit of study, students will approach the First Amendment from a variety of angles; while the entire scope of the amendment is not addressed, the focus on the freedoms of speech and the press establishes the groundwork on which deeper understanding of other specified freedoms (religion, association) can be built.

Activity 1

Begin the unit by showing students the “Domino Theory” cartoon and discussing its message. Incorporate thoughts on each segment of the First Amendment text and have students exchange their views on what the Founding Fathers intended while writing the words and what the First Amendment means to them. Point out that the First Amendment makes regular appearances in the news. Select an article about a First Amendment-based lawsuit — and provide an example that might seem outrageous and trivial (a current favorite: “A trademark-infringement lawsuit, filed by Lyons Partnership, owner of TV’s Barney, against Ted Giannoulas, a.k.a. the Famous Chicken of San Diego, was thrown out of court… Lyons says that it still believes Giannoulas’ routine of attacking a Barney look-alike ‘confuses and upsets young children.’ The company is considering an appeal. ‘It’s an important victory for the First Amendment,’ says Giannoulas’ lawyer…” — Entertainment Weekly, Aug. 14, 1998 ] Have students bring in newspaper articles about current cases and prepare a brief oral summary and analysis of the case. Discuss views on which types of speech are worth protecting and which are not.

Activity 2

Lead in to the activity with a brief discussion of the famous quote from Terminiello vs. Chicago [”That is why the freedom of speech, though not absolute … is nevertheless protected against censorship or punishment, unless shown likely to produce a clear and present danger or a serious substantive evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance, or unrest.”] After students have read “The Method of a Neo-Nazi Mogul” (New York Times Magazine, Feb. 25, 1996), divide the class into two groups and moderate a debate of the question “Does George Burdi have the right to spread views on the Internet?” Allow ample debriefing time and have students write journal entries about their thoughts and feelings on the issues raised. Discuss the affect that new technology, particularly the Internet, has and will have on the First Amendment.

Activity 3

After giving students background information on the Schenck vs. United States case (1919) and the World War I-era Committee of Public Information, use the New York Times vs. United States case (a.k.a. the Pentagon Papers) to analyze the issue of the First Amendment when it involves the government and the special circumstances of war. Provide students with the actual text of the NYT case and assign groups of two or three students to each “section” (there are eight separately written opinions). Each group becomes the “expert” on its section, and once each group thoroughly reads and understands its opinion, the class will come together and exchange information and analysis of each concurring and dissenting opinion. Emphasize the use of case precedents and the amount of emphasis that each opinion places on the First Amendment in relation to national security. Allow enough time for all students to sift through the often complex legal language; once everyone understands the different viewpoints, assign a 3-4 page essay which assesses the persuasiveness of the different arguments and whether or not the court’s decision was wise.

Activity 4

Conclude the unit by considering First Amendment-related topics that most directly apply to the lives of high school students. Sample court cases to examine are Tinker and Hopwood. School uniforms, the banning of “inappropriate” T-shirts in school, and locker and bag searches for drugs and weapons are issues that will generate lively discussion and debate. If possible, bring in guest speakers who can explain their views on student-related First Amendment concerns (a school administrator works well). Finish the activity with a journal reflection on what the future holds for the First Amendment.

Each activity needs at least two 60-minute periods of class time. Activities 2 and 3 will most likely need a third class meeting.


Students will be evaluated on the basis of:

  • oral presentation of news article (Activity 1)
  • clarity and amount of thought in the journal entries (Activities 2 and 4)
  • formal essay (Activity 3)
  • participation in class discussions (all four activities)


  • “Domino Theory” cartoon
  • Texts of First Amendment, Terminiello vs. Chicago, Schenck vs. United States, New York Times vs. United States
  • “The Method of a Neo-Nazi Mogul” (New York Times Magazine, Feb. 25, 1996)
  • Guest speaker (Activity 4)

Hannah Turlish’s lesson plan, "All Speech is Created Equal?" was published in The Media and Democracy Curriculum Compendium 1998, Barrett and Greyser editors, published by Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., p. 12.

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