Freedom Forum teaches teachers about First Amendment

Friday, October 30, 1998

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Poring over a survey about First Amendment attitudes, high school teacher Margaret Johnson of Clarksville, Tenn., grew anxious about the kinds of speech, publications and expression the amendment protects.

“I feel really wishy-washy,” laughed Johnson, one of 21 teachers gathered at The Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center for a teacher workshop.

Eighth-grade teacher Bob Dowlen, also of Clarksville, said he found himself questioning his knowledge and attitudes as well, wondering if he truly believes that the First Amendment protects those who say or do offensive things.

Johnson and Dowlen were members of the first class of teachers trained by the First Amendment Center to use the Education for Freedom curriculum, which provides materials for teaching students about the First Amendment.

If the two Clarksville educators were dismayed about their lack of knowledge concerning the First Amendment, Ken Paulson, the center’s executive director, tried to assure them that they weren’t alone.

“We find that an amazing number of Americans have no idea what the First Amendment stands for and what it does for American life,” Paulson said. “We’ve been most disturbed that most journalists in America don’t have a clue.”

Paulson said he often conducts a First Amendment pop quiz at journalism workshops, a test most journalists fail. When asked about the five freedoms the amendment guarantees — freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition — few can recall them all, he said. Some even forget to mention freedom of the press.

“It is clear that we have to catch them at a younger age,” Paulson told the teachers.

And, thus, the impetus for teacher workshops on the First Amendment.

Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for The Freedom Forum, said the Education for Freedom curriculum is designed to teach teachers how to bring First Amendment studies into the classroom and “put forth ideas (concerning) what I think are the most important components of good citizenship.”

With this inaugural two-day workshop, the First Amendment Center is reintroducing a curriculum originally developed by the First Amendment Congress, a now-defunct group focused on educating elementary and high school students. McMasters said he hoped to conduct as many as three more workshops next year in Nashville, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

The curriculum contains instruction plans, role-playing lessons, First Amendment background and resource materials for every grade level from kindergarten through high school.

Dowlen said the workshop would offer some excellent teaching materials and discussion topics for his eighth-grade classroom. He said it was making him consider his own views about freedom.

“I think that this offers an excellent opportunity to really discuss how we feel about it,” Dowlen said. “We say that we believe in the First Amendment, but to what extent do we really believe it?”