FEATURED LESSON PLAN
Journalists and the Constitution
Background Information for Teachers:
In 2004, with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, two University of Connecticut professors, Dr. David Yalof and Dr. Kenneth Dautrich, surveyed more than 100,000 high school students and 8,000 teachers about their attitudes towards the First Amendment. "The Future of the First Amendment" study found that:
- Students were "less likely than adults to think that people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions or newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories."
- Only 51 percent of students thought that newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories.
In a 2006 follow-up study, the percentage of students who thought that "the First Amendment went too far in the rights it guarantees" increased from 35 percent to 45 percent.
With these survey results as a backdrop, this lesson plan is designed to help students think about the First Amendment, the meaning of "freedom of the press, " and the symbiotic relationship between a free press and democracy.
Prior to doing the activity, preview Parts I and II of News War at www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/newswar/view/. The lesson is based on the story of Josh Wolf, which is approximately five minutes long and contained within segment 15 of Part II.
Students will learn:
- The concept of news media as a "watchdog" and the relationship of a free press to democracy
- The reasons for and against granting journalists the right to keep sources confidential
- The impact of government restriction of the press
- "Background Readings" student handouts
- "Questions for Viewing" student handout
- High-speed Internet access for students or a DVD of News War: Secrets, Sources & Spin, Part I & II
- Space on a Web site or another way for students to share written work with each other
Three to six class periods, depending on students' prior knowledge and choices about what is assigned as homework or completed in class.
Part One: Background
Distribute "Background Readings" and discuss with students:
- The Founding Fathers' views on the free press and why and how the media acts as a "watchdog"
- "Selected Acts and Court Decisions Related to a Free Press"
- Department of Justice policies on subpoenaing reporters
Part Two: View the Film
- Distribute the "Questions for Viewing" handout for students to review prior to viewing. View News War: Secrets, Sources & Spin, Part I.
- Show the second hour of News War or assign students to view it online at www.pbs.org/frontline/newswar/view/. Note that if students are watching online, Part II begins with Chapter 9. If viewing in class, stop the film prior to Chapter 15, the last segment in the film.
- After viewing, discuss students' responses to the questions on the handout and/or in the discussion question section of this lesson plan. This can be done as a whole class or in small groups.
Part Three: The Josh Wolf Case
- Tell students that Josh Wolf is a journalist currently in jail and show the final segment of News War -- the first part of Chapter 15.
- Ask students to define amicus brief (for example, "a brief presented by someone interested in influencing the outcome of a lawsuit but who is not a party to it." thefreedictionary.com)
- Assign students the task of developing a one- to three-page mock amicus brief supporting either the government's or Wolf's position. For more information on writing an amicus brief, go to Street Law's Course in Practical Law www.glencoe.com/sec/socialstudies/street_law/textbook_activities/unit_web_activities/unit01b.php
- Ask students to review the handout "Background Readings: Part Three, Subpoenaing Reporters," which outlines current Justice Department policy for obtaining information from the media. For further understanding of the DOJ guidelines, have them look at the interview excerpts on the guidelines found in the "Reporter's Privilege" section of the News War Web site at: www.pbs.org/frontline/newswar/interviews. They can also read the interviews with former Attorney General John Ashcroft's spokesman Mark Corallo, and current Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos.
- Highlight the challenge of this assignment: the students must go beyond a persuasive essay to develop a legal argument, basing their position on the Constitution or a subsequent legal decision that could serve as a precedent. Explain that students are not required to use the technical legal terms and format of a real amicus brief.
- Share with students possible resources to aid in developing their briefs, including the Constitution and the Web sites listed in the "Background Readings" and "Additional Resources" sections of this guide. They should also look at the interview excerpts on "reporter's privilege" on the News War Web site at: www.pbs.org/frontline/newswar/interviews. In addition, point students to the extended interviews with Josh Wolf, former prosecutor Randall Eliason, First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams and Washington Post editor Len Downie.
Part Four: Share and Revise Briefs
- Facilitate students' sharing their briefs with classmates by posting the briefs online in an accessible classroom forum or in class.
- Allow students to edit their briefs based on what they learn from reading those of their peers. Collect the final briefs. (With advanced students, you might discuss how their experience writing a legal argument was different from or similar to their other persuasive writing.)
- As a class, discuss which of the arguments in the briefs seem to be the strongest and why. Guide students to explain exactly what makes an argument convincing (e.g., well-written, clear tie to legal precedent, entertaining, etc.).
Methods of Assessment:
Review of amicus briefs for writing, comprehension and ability to apply legal concepts related to freedom of the press to current, real-life situations.