Celebrating Sunshine Week

Connie Southard
American Society of News Editors
Reston, Va.

This lesson plan was originally developed for Sunshine Week 2011.

Title: Celebrating Sunshine Week

Overview and Rationale:

This project helps students participate with the professional press in Sunshine Week activities. Starting on March 16, 2014 many U.S. media institutions will emphasize freedom of information (FOI) in order to educate Americans about their FOI rights and express concern about how our democracy is affected when these rights erode. High school students should recognize the importance of freedom of information and discover their voice in protecting these freedoms.

Goals for Understanding:

  • Identify the freedoms of the First Amendment.
  • Raise awareness of Freedom of Information Act and recognize the post-9/11 effects on it.
  • Participate with the professional press in Sunshine Week, March 16-222014.
  • Recognize the need for openness and balance in a democratic society and the responsibility of Americans to maintain that balance.
  • Define censorship and access to information
  • Understand the Freedom of Information Act and recognize the tensions over public access to information that have occurred since Sept. 11, 2001.


  • Students will be able to name the five freedoms in the First Amendment.
  • Students will discuss the benefits of the Freedom of Information Act and recognize why access to information by individuals has become difficult since 9/11.
  • Students will track their local newspapers and other professional media activities during Sunshine Week by identifying actions taken by the professional press to inform citizens about their rights to access public information.

Overview and Timeline

This lesson will take place over three days (45-minute periods) and includes a long-range assignment.


Activity 1: The First Amendment

  • Have students read the First Amendment and identify the five rights established by the First Amendment. Briefly discuss each right and give recent examples where this right has been upheld. Have your students rebuild the First Amendment in a simulation called the Bill of Rights Game.
  • In this simulation, the national computer has crashed and your students are tasked to rebuild it. Divide the class into five groups and assign one First Amendment right to each group. On butcher paper, have each group make a banner of their right, using the exact wording of the First Amendment and illustrating it. Place the banners on your classroom bulletin board, in the hallway or school library.

Activity 2: Review the rights identified in the First Amendment and concentrate on freedom of the press when the U.S. is at war.

  • Discussion Questions:
    • Why did our Founding Fathers amend the Constitution with the Bill of Rights?
    • Did our Founding Fathers have reason to be distrustful of government?
    • Why have a variety of news sources instead of a central source?
    • Why don’t national/state and local governments control content in newspapers and news broadcasts? Cite examples of countries where the government does control public information.
    • What’s the purpose of a free press?
    • How does the press help citizens develop an informed opinion about issues?
  • Discuss censorship in the United States during periods of war.
    • Censorship: Government restrictions on forms of expression (generally speech or writing) before they are disseminated
    • Abraham Lincoln shut down hundreds of opposition newspaper during the Civil War
    • Woodrow Wilson required a censorship code restricting newspapers
  • Discuss the pros and cons of a this past occurence:.
    • Although it’s been rescinded by the Obama administration, in 2003, the Defense Department issued a directive denying media access to repatriation ceremonies at military bases. The government views this as a means to safeguard the privacy of the families involved. Media organizations have protested it as an attempt to suppress images of the grim reality of war.
    • Along with the directive, the Department of Defense also attempted to deny public access to photos taken by its staff, claiming that it was a violation of the personal privacy of deceased soldiers and their families. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals found no valid exemption to deny access to the government’s own photos.
    • In April 2004, photos taken by a Department of Defense civilian contractor of soldiers’ flag-draped caskets in a cargo plane leaving Kuwait appeared in The Seattle Times and on a website. The contractor who took the photos was fired.
  • During the Vietnam War, the leak of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 ignited a constitutional crisis.
    • What decision did the Supreme Court render in New York Times v. the United States?
    • What was The Washington Post’s role in this matter?
      • Name the publisher and editor of The Washington Post during the crisis.
      • The editorial page editor is quoted as saying there’s more than one way to destroy a newspaper.
      • What did he mean?
    • Discuss the Pentagon Papers and freedom of the press during wartime with your students.

Activity 3: The Freedom of Information Act

  • The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was signed into law by President Johnson on July 4, 1966.
    • Before FOIA, an individual had to establish a need to know before access was considered. After FOIA, the burden of proof shifted to the federal government and its agencies.
    • There are nine exempted areas of specific interest. Points of contention are often related to matters concerning national security and privacy:
    • If the federal government fails to provide access to the information, that decision can be challenged in federal court. Since Sept. 11, national security has been cited by the federal government as a key reason for limiting public access.
    • It only applies to the federal government. State records are governed by state law, where openness varies.
    • Does the First Amendment relate to high school students? Have students take First Amendment quiz.

Other potential components/complements for these activities:

  • Get your students involved in the democratic process by encouraging them to write to elected officials and the local newspaper, expressing their views on the five freedoms of the First Amendment. E-mail addresses of your local U.S. Representatives and U.S. Senators can be found in the “Find Your Local Officials” section.
  • Contact your local daily newspaper and ask for a speaker to talk about the Freedom of Information Act and how it has been applied locally. (It would work best for the teacher to call rather than the students so the person won’t be deluged.)

Long-range assignment.

  • Have students keep a chart (see related article) of news and feature articles, cartoons, opinion pieces in newspapers around the country that relate to FOI or Sunshine Week. Also note broadcast commentaries about the necessity of freedom of information during the week.


Sunshine Week

American Society of News Editors:

Other sources

Sunshine Week Chart

Newspaper: Find news articles, feature stories, photo, infographics, opinion pieces, columns, cartoons, etc. to demonstrate how the professional press to inform citizens about their rights to access public information. Sample chart for newspaper and broadcast coverage.

Type of Article:
Pro/Con FOI:

Broadcast: Identify how the broadcast media inform people about their rights to access public information during Sunshine Week.

Name of broadcast/state:
Type of Article:
Pro/Con FOI: