PhotoMediaGroup/Shutterstock.com

First Amendment 101

The nation’s founders drafted the First Amendment to safeguard some of Americans’ most important freedoms. What rights does it guarantee you?

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.

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.

Disagree with a new law in your town? You can speak up about it. Worship differently than your friends? You have the right to follow any faith you choose or none at all. Want the latest scoop? Read articles from as many news outlets as you like—or start your own.

We sometimes take these rights for granted, but our nation’s founders did not. Even as they signed the Constitution in 1787, some of the Framers worried that the document didn’t guarantee Americans’ individual freedoms. They wanted to be sure that the new government they’d created didn’t overstep its bounds.

So James Madison, who had been the primary author of the Constitution, wrote the Bill of Rights. Ratified in 1791, the 10 amendments that make up the Bill of Rights protect key individual liberties, such as freedom from unreasonable searches and the right to public trials. The first one on the list, however, is arguably the most vital.  

The First Amendment establishes Americans’ freedom of speech, religion, and the press, as well as the right to assemble peacefully and to petition the government for change (see full text, above). It’s just 45 words—the text fits inside a single tweet—yet the First Amendment gives Americans incredible power, says Catherine Ross, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University.

“Freedom of expression is the engine oil that makes democracies function,” says Ross. “It gives us the right to criticize the powerful, to demand change, and to learn what is going on in our society so we can organize for political action and be informed voters.”

First Amendment freedoms are for all Americans, but the rules sometimes differ for young people—especially in public schools, which are considered an extension of the government. Here’s a look at how First Amendment rights really play out in your lives.

Disagree with a new law in your town? You can speak up about it. Worship differently than your friends? You have the right to follow any faith you choose or none at all. Want the latest scoop? Read articles from as many news outlets as you like—or start your own.

We sometimes take these rights for granted, but our nation’s founders did not. The Framers signed the Constitution in 1787. Even then, some of them worried that the document didn’t guarantee Americans’ individual freedoms. They wanted to be sure that the new government they’d created didn’t overstep its bounds.

So James Madison, who had been the primary author of the Constitution, wrote the Bill of Rights. Ratified in 1791, the 10 amendments that make up the Bill of Rights protect key individual liberties. These include freedom from unreasonable searches and the right to public trials. The first one on the list, however, is arguably the most vital.

The First Amendment establishes Americans’ freedom of speech, religion, and the press. It also protects the right to assemble peacefully and to petition the government for change (see full text, above). It’s just 45 words. In fact, the text fits inside a single tweet. Yet the First Amendment gives Americans incredible power, says Catherine Ross, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University.

“Freedom of expression is the engine oil that makes democracies function,” says Ross. “It gives us the right to criticize the powerful, to demand change, and to learn what is going on in our society so we can organize for political action and be informed voters.”

First Amendment freedoms are for all Americans. But the rules sometimes differ for young people. They’re especially different in public schools. Public schools are considered an extension of the government. Here’s a look at how First Amendment rights really play out in your lives.

Jon Shapley/Houston Chronicle/AP Images

1. FREEDOM OF SPEECH

Does the First Amendment allow me to say and wear whatever I want at school?

It’s not quite that simple. School officials have the right to limit your clothing choices and speech if they think either might interfere with learning. So if you stand up and start yelling in class, mentioning your First Amendment rights won’t prevent you from getting detention. (Even outside of school, free expression has its limits. As the late Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”)

Schools can’t ban personal expression simply because it’s controversial or unpopular, however. Case in point: In 1965, 13-year-old Mary Beth Tinker was suspended for wearing a black armband to school in Iowa to protest the Vietnam War. She sued the district—and the case eventually landed at the Supreme Court.

The Court ruled in her favor, saying that she had a right to peacefully express her political views. In the 1969 decision Tinker v. Des Moines, the justices declared that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The groundbreaking ruling is still considered the most important of all school-related First Amendment cases.

It’s not quite that simple. School officials have the right to limit your clothing choices and speech if they think either might interfere with learning. So if you stand up and start yelling in class, mentioning your First Amendment rights won’t prevent you from getting detention. (Even outside of school, free expression has its limits. As the late Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”)

But schools can’t ban personal expression simply because it’s controversial or unpopular. Case in point: In 1965, 13-year-old Mary Beth Tinker was suspended for wearing a black armband to school in Iowa to protest the Vietnam War. She sued the district. The case eventually landed at the Supreme Court.

The Court ruled in her favor, saying that she had a right to peacefully express her political views. In the 1969 decision Tinker v. Des Moines, the justices declared that students “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The groundbreaking ruling is still considered the most important of all school-related First Amendment cases.    

Snapchat banned me! Isn’t that a violation of free speech? 

Nope. The First Amendment prevents the government and government institutions—like public schools—from punishing or censoring speech. But in most cases, the rules don’t apply to private companies, private schools, or private people like, say, your parents. (“You don’t have First Amendment rights at home,” notes Ross.)

These days, social media platforms increasingly feel like public spaces. Still, it’s legal for private companies such as Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to block you as they see fit.

Nope. The First Amendment prevents the government and government institutions—like public schools—from punishing or censoring speech. But in most cases, the rules don’t apply to private companies, private schools, or private people like, say, your parents. (“You don’t have First Amendment rights at home,” notes Ross.)

These days, social media platforms increasingly feel like public spaces. Still, it’s legal for private companies like social media companies to block you as they see fit. Yes, that includes Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

ZUMA Press Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

Football players gather for a prayer after a game at Zephyrhills High School in Florida.

2. FREEDOM OF RELIGION

Is prayer allowed in public schools?

The Framers felt strongly about keeping the government out of religion. They wrote the establishment clause of the First Amendment—“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”—to prohibit the government from establishing a national religion. (You may have heard this referred to as the separation of church and state.)

What does this mean in school? Generally, you can pray as long as you’re the one who is initiating it and school officials aren’t involved. 

The Framers felt strongly about keeping the government out of religion. They wrote the establishment clause of the First Amendment to prohibit the government from establishing a national religion. It states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." You may have heard this referred to as the separation of church and state.

What does this mean in school? Generally, you can pray as long as you’re the one who is initiating it and school officials aren’t involved. 

If public schools aren’t allowed to promote religion, how can mine make us say the Pledge of Allegiance — including the phrase “under God”?

Schools are allowed to lead students in the Pledge as a patriotic exercise, not as a prayer. But whether you actually say the Pledge is up to you. The Supreme Court ruled in 1943’s West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette that students have the right not to salute the flag or recite the Pledge. As long as you don’t cause a major disturbance, you can literally sit it out—or even ask permission to leave the room.

Schools are allowed to lead students in the Pledge as a patriotic exercise, not as a prayer. But whether you actually say the Pledge is up to you. The Supreme Court ruled in 1943’s West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette that students have the right not to salute the flag or recite the Pledge. As long as you don’t cause a major disturbance, you can literally sit it out—or even ask permission to leave the room.

Courtesy Roopa Venkatraman

Students at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts work on the school paper.

3. FREEDOM OF THE PRESS

Does freedom of the press give the media the power to say whatever it wants?

Basically, yes. Journalists can cover anything they choose and from any viewpoint, whether impartial or intentionally biased. However, there are two key limits. First, journalists are not allowed to knowingly print false information about someone—that’s called libel. Second, they cannot print private information, such as medical details, about someone unless the information is important for the public to know.

The threat of a lawsuit is enough to keep most journalists in line, says Lata Nott, of the First Amendment Center at the Newseum Institute. The profession also has a history of self-policing to maintain fair and accurate reporting standards—such as verifying sources and facts before publication. In addition, most respected newspapers keep opinion pieces in a section separate from news articles.

Basically, yes. Journalists can cover anything they choose and from any viewpoint, whether impartial or intentionally biased. However, there are two key limits. First, journalists are not allowed to knowingly print false information about someone. That’s called libel. Second, they cannot print private information, such as medical details, about someone unless the information is important for the public to know.

The threat of a lawsuit is enough to keep most journalists in line, says Lata Nott, of the First Amendment Center at the Newseum Institute. The profession also has a history of self-policing to maintain fair and accurate reporting standards. This includes verifying sources and facts before publication. Most respected newspapers also keep opinion pieces in a section separate from news articles.    

Our principal says we have to show him our school newspaper articles before we print them. Is that legal?

It sure is. The Supreme Court ruled in 1988’s Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that administrators have the right to preview and censor school-sponsored publications. School newspapers and yearbooks are considered supervised learning activities in which the school has a legitimate reason to provide guidance.  

Administrators can’t just yank any article they dislike, however. Schools need to have legitimate cause—in the Kuhlmeier case, for example, the principal pulled certain articles because he felt they invaded some students’ privacy.

“If the school officials have reasonable reasons for limiting student expression,” Nott says, “then the First Amendment isn’t going to let students publish whatever they want.”

It sure is. The Supreme Court ruled in 1988’s Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that administrators have the right to preview and censor school-sponsored publications. School newspapers and yearbooks are considered supervised learning activities. That means the school has a legitimate reason to provide guidance.

But administrators can’t just yank any article they dislike. Schools need to have legitimate cause. In the Kuhlmeier case, for example, the principal pulled certain articles because he felt they invaded some students’ privacy.

“If the school officials have reasonable reasons for limiting student expression,” Nott says, “then the First Amendment isn’t going to let students publish whatever they want.”    

37%: Percentage of Americans who couldn’t name a single right protected by the First Amendment in a recent survey. (Source: Annenberg Public Policy Center)

Richard Brown/Alamy Stock Photo

Hundreds of cities across the country have curfews for teenagers.

4. FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

My town has a curfew for teens. Doesn’t that violate my right to peacefully assemble?

No. In fact, hundreds of U.S. cities have instituted nightly curfews for teens to help drive down crime. Millions of teens have been arrested for violating them over the past few decades. While the government can’t discriminate on who can gather based on a group’s viewpoint, it can dictate the place, time, and manner in which people assemble.

Curfews have been challenged on various grounds, including that they violate teens’ right to meet and gather. Most courts have upheld the curfews for the sake of public safety, especially when there are concerns about gang activity. 

“The reasoning is that minors have lesser rights than adults, need to be safe, and usually that the community also needs to be safe from disorderly young people,” Ross says.

Still, courts have struck down curfews that are too broad or don’t include enough exclusions—such as for teens who work night jobs. 

No. In fact, hundreds of U.S. cities have instituted nightly curfews for teens to help drive down crime. Millions of teens have been arrested for violating them over the past few decades. While the government can’t discriminate on who can gather based on a group’s viewpoint, it can dictate the place, time, and manner in which people assemble.

Curfews have been challenged on various grounds. This includes that they violate teens’ right to meet and gather. Most courts have upheld the curfews for the sake of public safety. This has been the case when there are concerns about gang activity.

“The reasoning is that minors have lesser rights than adults, need to be safe, and usually that the community also needs to be safe from disorderly young people,” Ross says.

Still, courts have struck down curfews that are too broad or don’t include enough exclusions. For example, they’ve struck down ones that don’t exclude teens who work night jobs.    

5. FREEDOM TO PETITION

Can I use social media to encourage other students to lobby school administrators?

nelen/Shutterstock.com

In general, the right to complain to the authorities isn’t up for debate—after all, the Declaration of Independence was mostly a list of complaints about British rule! But it can be a bit trickier for students. Just as we all have the right to complain to lawmakers or ask for new laws, students have the right to go to school officials to demand changes. (The school board and school administrators are considered public officials.) But you can’t encourage actions that will disrupt learning in school—such as telling your friends to boycott class.

And how you make those demands also matters, as Connecticut teen Avery Doninger found out. In 2007, she wrote a blog post urging her classmates to complain to school officials after they canceled a battle-of-the-bands concert. But she insulted administrators in her post—and the school blocked Avery from serving on the student council as a result. She sued, but the courts eventually sided with the school, saying that Avery’s post had disrupted other students.

Learn from that, Nott says. “If your goal is to actually lobby the administration, leave out the insults—especially language that targets specifically school administrators or other students,” she says. Otherwise “you’re risking that your message will get lost.”

In general, the right to complain to the authorities isn’t up for debate. After all, the Declaration of Independence was mostly a list of complaints about British rule! But it can be a bit trickier for students. Just as we all have the right to complain to lawmakers or ask for new laws, students have the right to go to school officials to demand changes. The school board and school administrators are considered public officials. But you can’t encourage actions that will disrupt learning in school. For example, you can’t tell your friends to boycott class.

And how you make those demands also matters, as Connecticut teen Avery Doninger found out. In 2007, she wrote a blog post urging her classmates to complain to school officials after they canceled a battle-of-the-bands concert. But she insulted administrators in her post. In response, the school blocked Avery from serving on the student council. She sued, but the courts eventually sided with the school. They said that Avery’s post had disrupted other students.

Learn from that, Nott says. “If your goal is to actually lobby the administration, leave out the insults—especially language that targets specifically school administrators or other students,” she says. Otherwise “you’re risking that your message will get lost.”

Back to top
videos (1)
Skills Sheets (5)
Skills Sheets (5)
Skills Sheets (5)
Skills Sheets (5)
Skills Sheets (5)
Lesson Plan (1)
Leveled Articles (1)