Civics Lesson: First Amendment Freedoms

The First Amendment (as part of the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution) reads as follows:

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.

But what does it all mean? Am I allowed to say whatever to whoever I please while being protected from any kind of consequence or penalty? What am I assembling? Here are a few explanations for each of the five freedoms within the First Amendment:

Freedom of Religion

This freedom protects U.S. citizens from (1) being subjected to a state-sponsored religion and (2) being prohibited from freely practicing the religion one chooses. However, this freedom does not allow someone to establish say, a religion that involves human sacrifice, or something extreme in nature (I know, it’s crazy that I have to point that one out). It’s important to remember that many of the British colonies in what is the present-day United States were founded for religious reasons (e.g. Pennsylvania, Massachusetts Bay Colony); that is they wanted to protect themselves from the religious persecution that they had endured in Europe. So it should be no surprise that the Founders made sure that this freedom would continue to be protected.

Freedom of Speech

The most widely misunderstood freedom within the First Amendment, freedom of speech simply protects you from being silenced by the government. You can criticize the president in public, and not be fined or thrown in jail for doing so. You can write a blog about how Supreme Court justices should have term limits, and an unmarked white van will not suddenly appear outside your house. I say freedom of speech is widely misunderstood because many people think it protects you from being silenced by your employer or fired for saying something that goes against your employers policies (it does not), or that it allows one to “roast” somebody else, as many students tend to believe. Again, it’s about the freedom to speak freely about government, without repercussions.

Freedom of the Press

Like freedom of speech, freedom of the press ensures that newspapers, magazines, radio shows, podcasts and other publications are free to criticize the government. This is not to be taken for granted, as there are several countries in contemporary times that do not exercise this freedom (China, North Korea, Syria, to name a few). Among other things, the lack of press freedom means that students in China cannot freely look up a YouTube video of the incident known as Tiananmen Square from 1989, when students in Bejing, China (and many other Chinese cities) protested for more democracy and freedom of speech, and one man stood in front of a tank and would not move for several minutes (he was later pulled away by onlookers)! Nor can they find a Chinese newspaper that will explain the history of the incident to them, including how hundreds of protesters were killed.

Freedom of Assembly

This is the right, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said on the night before he died, “to protest for rights!” The amendment is pretty clear on this one: you must do so peacefully. Throwing rocks or other forms of violence are not protected. But standing in front of the White House lawn with your fellow Americans in protest of the policies of the president is protected. So is protesting the lack of bipartisanship in Congress on the steps outside of the Capitol Building (where Congress works).

Freedom of Petition

This freedom is a soft form of political persuasion. Imagine that you have an idea for a law that you would like your member of Congress to introduce in the House. You write a summary of the law, then you go out into your community and pitch the idea to everyone you see. Anyone that thinks it’s a great idea signs their name on a piece of paper (your petition). You get a few thousand signatures and are very proud of what you’ve accomplished. You then mail or hand deliver your idea with the thousands of hard-earned signatures to your member of Congress. You’ve just exercised your freedom of petition!

Teachers – How do you teach?

To any social studies teachers who read this blog, what are your ideas for teaching this critical topic in American government or civics courses? Share them below.

Civics Lesson: What are Checks and Balances?

Checks and balances…to some, it sounds like a personal finance concept. But to social studies teachers, it’s one of the most crucial ideas in American government that serve as an indicator of whether or not a student grasps other fundamental concepts like separation of powers and the three branches. In short, if your students don’t understand the meaning of checks and balances after a semester of civics, it’s time to remediate and fix the error.

Main Idea of Checks and Balances

Checks and balances relies on the constitutional framework that provides for three branches of government, each with its own separate and distinct roles and powers. One Founding Father who detailed this idea while advocating for ratification of the U.S. Constitution was James Madison (see Federalist No. 47). Madison based his ideas about the separation of powers on the writings of French philosopher Montesquieu. In short, to avoid tyranny and absolute power in the hands of one branch or group of people, separate branches with the ability to “check” or cancel the actions of another branch were essential. In historical and modern terms, one quick example is detailed by the process of passing a bill and signing it into law: if a bill passes in Congress, it is up to the president to sign or veto–reject–the bill. It is not law until signed by the president. That’s checks and balances.

James Madison.jpg
James Madison

Example 1: Legislative Checks the Executive

One role of the legislative branch involves the confirmation or rejection of presidential appointments. No, this does not mean that the Speaker of the House confirms that the president has a dentist appointment at 9 AM next Thursday. It means that when a recently elected president nominates someone to be his Cabinet secretary for the Department of Agriculture, the upper chamber in the legislative branch, the Senate, holds hearings to examine the background and qualifications of the nominee, and ultimately votes to confirm or reject the nominee to the position. That’s an example of checks and balances, and one in which the national legislature holds great power over the executive branch.

Example 2: Executive Checks the Legislative

One of the easiest to remember was detailed in the main idea earlier: the president vetoes a bill. In doing so, the president–the chief executive–has “checked” the power of Congress–the national legislature. Of course, as checks and balances go, if Congress can muster 2/3rds of its members to vote to overrule the president’s veto, the bill will become law, which is another way that the legislative branch checks the executive.

Example 3: Judicial Checks the Legislative & Executive

Another lesson for another time will be on the judicial power of judicial review, which was established in 1803 via the Supreme Court’s decision in Marbury v Madison. That said, judicial review is the power of the courts to overturn what are deemed unconstitutional laws. Clearly, the most landmark reversals are initiated by the U.S. Supreme Court, including Brown v Board in 1954, which overturned Plessy v Ferguson (1896, “separate but equal”). Put simply, when the judicial branch throws out an unconstitutional law, it’s a check on the legislative branch that wrote, debated and passed the bill, and the executive who signed it into law. This check illustrates the immense power of the Supreme Court and the judicial branch.

See Articles I, II and III

Of course there are many other examples of the three branches “checking” the powers of each other, and the primary source to those details is the U.S. Constitution, specifically in Articles I, II and III. However, I think the ones above are the easiest for middle school and high school students to grasp. What are some of your favorite examples of checks and balances? Leave your comments below.

The Preamble, Explained

Folks my age and older can remember the Schoolhouse Rocks “Preamble” song. When I taught in Virginia, I had students listen to the song and unscramble the Preamble, with a goal of cutting and pasting the purposes in order. By purposes, I mean the goals of the U.S. Constitution. Since the song lyrics are repeated 3-4 times, I typically suggested to the kids to mark the purposes by number, one after another (1 “…form a more perfect union”, 2 “establish justice”). I teach the same lesson online, with one modification: students unscramble the purposes in a Word document. In-class or online, it’s a fun activity that introduces an important lesson in U.S. history, and addresses the following question: why was the Articles of Confederation replaced? My video lecture below discusses the weaknesses of the Articles, and the purposes of the U.S. Constitution.