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October 08, 2019 High School

Free Press and SCOTUS: Incorporating Case Studies in the Classroom

This lesson will ask students to engage with landmark freedom of press case studies exploring how the Supreme Court has ruled on First Amendment issues and has tried to balance competing values in our democracy. 

Grade Level: High School
Time Needed: 60-90 minutes

Materials Needed:

Free Press and SCOTUS PowerPoint>>
Case Studies>>

  • Near v. Minnesota (1931)
  • New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964)
  • Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts (1965)
  • Branzburg v. Hayes (1971)
  • New York Times Co. v. United States (1971)
  • Gertz v Robert Welch, Inc. (1974)

Note: Depending on the class, you may want to  concentrate on only one or several of the case studies at a time.

Part 1: Introduction with Walk the Line Activity

Ask students to line up against one wall. Ask students to step forward if they agree with the following statement. Note: Have each of the statements ready to display. After each statement, ask several students to share why they agreed or disagreed.

  • First Amendment free press protections should be absolute.
  • Private individuals should have a greater right to privacy than celebrities.
  • States should have the ability to determine their own protection (shield) laws for journalists.

Part 2: Reviewing the First Amendment

Display text of First Amendment

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. 
Review the definition with students and ask students to identify the parts of the text that specifically reference free speech and free press. You may want to ask students the following questions:

  • Why do you think the founders included free speech and free press in the very First Amendment to the Constitution?
  • Do you think that freedom of the press is important to have in a democracy? Why or why not?

Part 3: Free Press and the Supreme Court – Case Study Jigsaw

The following case studies reflect how the Supreme Court has grappled to apply “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” These cases show the Court’s considerations when creating protections for speakers and the press in light of the many restrictions placed on speech and the press under principles of English common law. These principles were adopted by the early American Republic. 
Split the class into six groups and assign each group a case. Give the groups twenty minutes to read and discuss their case. Each group should then present an overview of the facts of the case, the issue before the Court, the Court ruling, and their case-specific focus questions. 
Note: Groups should present cases in chronological order and the teacher should be prepared to help introduce each case by presenting the backgrounds provided in the case studies to the entire class before each group transitions to their part of the presentations.

Additional Resources:

Short animated videos on New York v. Sullivan

Frontline PBS Interview with Earl Caldwell of Branzburg v. Hayes on the Black Panthers and the FBI,

C-Span Landmark Cases: New York Co. v. United States (1971)

Short animated video on Gertz v. Robert Welch (1974)