FIRE is proud to unveil the first units of our First Amendment-centered curriculum aimed at high school students and teachers. Our high school-oriented curriculum offers a range of material aimed at giving high schoolers a strong foundation in the history and principles of freedom of expression before they head to college, so that they are better informed and prepared for the robust atmosphere of debate and discussion that college has to offer.
We will be releasing additional units in the coming months, and we will offer additions and expansions to currently published units as well. We encourage teachers and students to sign up for our high school outreach mailing list to be alerted to updates and additions to FIRE’s curriculum and other opportunities for engagement. High school teachers who test FIRE’s materials are also encouraged to complete our feedback form to help with our materials’ continued development.
This unit takes students back to the years before the adoption of the Constitution and Bill of Rights to examine of the political and philosophical influences on free speech and free thought that would come to be reflected in America’s founding documents. Subjects include thinkers such as John Milton and John Locke, the influence of the European Enlightenment on American political thought, and the influence of later thinkers such as John Stuart Mill, whose ideas have influenced modern legal interpretations of free speech.
While the First Amendment was adopted with the Bill of Rights in 1791, the U.S. government has frequently acted to try and silence dissent throughout history. Often, those targeted for censorship and retaliation were political or racial minorities whose ideas and activism were viewed as dangerous or offensive by their government at the time. Despite the government’s attempts to censor their views, and in many cases precisely because of them, those dissenting ideas often came to be widely accepted, even reflected in law. The government’s history of censorship and the stories of those who overcame it serve as a reminder of the importance of strong free speech protections for everyone.
The Modern Origins of the First Amendment
Though the First Amendment has been law for more than 200 years, only in the last century has it come to acquire the expansive protections Americans currently enjoy. Beginning with a series of cases involving the rights of anti-war speakers in the World War I era, the Supreme Court, and in particular justices Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Louis Brandeis, began forging a new interpretation of the First Amendment, one which recognized the importance of dissent for democracy, the value of clashing opinions, and the importance of responding to offensive speech with more speech, not with censorship.
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