SCOTUS Free Speech Cases Leads to Informed Action through Service Learning


The Illinois civics course requirements for both middle and high school require students to discuss current and societal issues to apply their knowledge of democratic institutions through civil discourse around essential questions facing our republic. A case taken up by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) this term, Mahanoy v. B.L. is sure to animate many #CivicsInTheMiddle classrooms. This case involves a cheerleader removed from the squad for her Snapchat postings. This case will determine whether Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which holds that public school officials may regulate speech that would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school, applies to student speech that occurs off-campus.

Chris Johnson, an Illinois Civics Instructional Coach from ROWVA Junior/Senior High School, led his students in an inquiry around the First Amendment that explored the essential question,”Should the essential rights that students hold be expanded?” This inquiry led to informed action through service learning in which students developed a social media policy that could be used by coaches and sponsors at ROWVA.

Chris is one of 26 educators participating in the Guardians of Democracy Microcredential Program with Volunteer Generation Fund support from Serve Illinois to facilitate service learning opportunities for classrooms to work together for the common good of Illinois. We asked Chris to share a bit more about his experience of using civic inquiry to take informed action to develop the knowledge, skills and dispositions of participatory citizenship. Here are his responses.

Can you briefly describe your service learning project?

In this project, students examined the rights currently given to students including speech, press, privacy, and due process. They examined relevant case law that influences school policy. They then learned about the Mahanoy v. B.L. case recently heard by the Supreme Court after which they conducted a moot court simulation over this case. Students were able to participate in a webinar hosted by Street Law featuring Mary Beth Tinker, the petitioner in the landmark case, Tinker v. Des Moines and were able to learn from her story.

Following these various learning activities, students examined the current social media policies of area teams and groups through the lens of the BL case. After collecting and studying policies, students worked together to develop a social media policy that could be used by coaches and sponsors at ROWVA. They presented this to the principal and Athletic Director and responded to any critiques from the decision makers. Note: as a coach and sponsor, I will be using this policy for my team’s 2021 season.

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

For a student, school is arguably the most significant community that they are involved in currently. They deserve to understand their rights but also see how those rights are applied to others over time. Looking at these rights through the lens of a policy that involves themselves will engage students and give them a better understanding of why rules are written the way they are.

Some of the student reflections on this inquiry included:

  • “I felt most engaged in my learning when we did the Moot Court simulation because you have to stay engaged while hearing the arguments. It allows us to form our own opinions on the topic we discuss. It was also super cool getting to hear Mary Beth Tinker actually talk about her experience with her precedent case on Zoom, and that we got to ask her questions directly.”
  • “During class, I enjoyed the in-depth discussions we had. While I am not the best in participating in them on the outside, I am usually very engaged. In my mind I am contributing to the discussion, but not outside. Having the court simulations was also a fun way to learn more about the specific case and actually form an opinion after researching both sides of the cases.”
  • “I did disagree with some rules growing up, but I never once thought to challenge them. Being raised on the previously said mindset made it hard for me to fully understand the concept of having any type of right or ability to challenge rights. I now know that students do have rights and are allowed to embrace them. They are also allowed to challenge them.”
  • “This activity made me curious about history classes in general. If there were a limit to patriotic values in the classroom, would history teachers be able to force a student to learn about a historical American event that might have hurt that student’s people/culture?”

What comes next? What did students identify as future opportunities to address this essential question?

Students will continue to look at the way rights are explained and applied to them on a daily basis. Since they have now taken part in developing a social media policy for their own school teams, they will be more capable of explaining it and encourage others to follow it. They have expressed more interest in having conversations with decision makers about rules and how to make them more fair and reasonable for all. This will play out as students are involved in committees around the school involving curriculum, discipline, the handbook, and culture (all part of our school-wide Future Ready initiative).

What advice would you give teachers thinking about opportunities for engaging their students in service learning?

The first step is finding a topic that catches the interest of students. Once students have found a topic that engages students, our job as educators is to provide them the framework and guidance to find their own success.

Do you have any final comments you would like to share?

Students were very engaged in this topic. In a verbal reflection, many commented on how they liked doing the moot courts on a case that was not yet ruled on. One student stated “It felt like there was no real answer on this yet and that made it seem more real for us.” The follow up here with creating a social media policy for the school really was positively received by students. This showed me how the combination of good learning and real informed action was impactful. I will be putting this social media policy in my team rules for the next season. Several students expressed that they are going to try to get their coach/sponsor to do the same.