Middle Schoolers Use SCOTUS Precedents to Explore Free Speech

Free speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution is a topic that provides an opportunity for rigorous and relevant civic inquiry in the middle school classroom. Corie Yow, a 6th-grade social studies teacher in Ball-Chatham CUSD #5 outside of Springfield, Illinois, used Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decisions in Texas v. Johnson and Mahanoy v. B.L. to explore how SCOTUS has addressed the questions around freedom, power, civil norms and liberty in our constitutional republic. 

Corie, an Illinois Civics Hub Regional Instructional Coach for Menard, Sangamon, Macoupin, Christian, Montgomery, Bond, Fayette, Effingham, Madison, Jersey, Greene, and Calhoun Counties, was one of 33 participants in this fall’s Guardians of Democracy cohorts led by the Illinois Civics Hub, earning her Gold Badge in the proven practice of Current and Controversial Issue Discussions in the classroom. 

We asked Corie to share her reflections on her engaging her students in deliberation on the issue of free speech. Here are her responses.

Briefly describe your topic for your current and controversial issue discussion. What prompt did you use? Why is this an open and relevant issue for students?

After studying First Amendment rights, specifically freedom of speech, and the Texas V. Johnson case, we extended our inquiry to include the First Amendment and student rights. Using Structured Academic Controversy, students explored both perspectives of the prompt, “Should the First Amendment prohibit public school officials from regulating off-campus student speech?”  Students have been protected in various ways by the First Amendment, but not all precedent court cases address every situation.  Therefore, it could still be controversial.  

Why did you choose the Structured Academic Controversy strategy? 

I chose the Structured Academic Controversy so the students would be able to see the situation from both sides.  Since there have been various outcomes of Supreme Court cases involving student speech, I thought it might be beneficial for students to compromise on the conditions in which the first amendment should or should not prohibit schools from regulating off-campus speech.  Exploring both sides and potential compromises will help them to build background knowledge for all roles in the moot court simulation. 

How did students gain the necessary background knowledge for this discussion? How did this activity deepen students’ disciplinary content knowledge and/or meet learning targets?

Students studied the case summary (from Street Law) on the court case Mahanoy V. B.L.  to prepare for the discussion. This activity helped students practice the skills of gathering information, developing claims, and communicating their conclusions while extending their knowledge on the United States Constitution, specifically the First Amendment, and the workings of the Judicial branch of government. 

How did this project deepen students’ knowledge of themselves and their community?

Students were able to gather information by exploring multiple various viewpoints and perspectives before drawing their own conclusion. Once a conclusion was reached, students looked at common agreements and disagreements to be able to compromise and come to a consensus.  Students were able to deepen their knowledge of themselves by evaluating the information presented in the text and throughout the discussion to develop their own opinion. Then students’ knowledge of their own stance allowed them to seek a compromise that is suitable to the people in their discussion group.   

In addition, students were able to develop an awareness and understanding of their own rights on and off-campus.  

Do you have any reflections from students that illustrate what they learned from this dialogue? 

  • “Sometimes there is more information than what people shared and sometimes the information they shared was inaccurate. After having the opportunity to gather my own information, I was able to find the facts. It is easier to make a compromise when you give everyone a chance and time to explain themselves because it gives you more information to come up with a compromise.” – Emma   
  • “Something I noticed was it was easier to find information for one side than the other. It taught me to look closer to find the less obvious information that supports that side.  There is always another way to get what you want and what other people want at the same time.  It doesn’t have to be just one way or the other.”  – Abby  
  • “I noticed sometimes the discussion can be really hard to make a decision because I could understand the perspective for both sides.  It gives you the opportunity to hear other people’s perspectives and all sides of the situation.  Because of that in the end you feel more confident in your decision and compromise. ”- Mia 

What advice would you give teachers thinking about opportunities for engaging their students in classroom discussions?

Using the Structured Academic Controversy discussion strategy is a perfect opportunity to get students to have an open dialogue in a smaller setting.  The smaller setting allows students who are reluctant to share in larger discussions an opportunity to shine.  Although you cannot be listening to every discussion at one time, you can rely on students sharing out at the end of the discussion and their reflections to grasp the quality of each of the discussions. 

If you are interested in participating in the Guardians of Democracy Microcredential Program, registration is now open for the winter cohorts. For more information, including course syllabi, visit https://guardiansofdemocracyteachers.org/.