The First Amendment, What It Means and When Libel Comes Into Play

Lance T. Dillahunt
East Hampton High School
East Hampton, N.Y.

Title: The First Amendment, What It Means and When Libel Comes Into Play

Key Themes

  • Freedom of the press
  • First Amendment and what it means
  • Why John Peter Zenger played a crucial role in the development of the First Amendment.
  • What Libel is and the protection from libel.


This unit discusses three different topics: The First Amendment, John Peter Zenger and his trial, and libel. It is obvious that the Zenger case was a hint at what the United States was going to become and a precursor to the First Amendment. But what does freedom of expression entail. Can it possibly mean that one can say anything at anytime? Certainly not. Students will be curious about this, which is why I’ve included libel laws in this unit.


  • Topic
    • What is sedition?
    • What does by authority mean?
    • Who was John Peter Zenger and what did he do?
    • What is the First Amendment?
    • What are the five elements of libel?
  • Critical
    • Why do you think the British set up the Anti-Sedition Act?
    • Why was the Zenger case important for the future of journalism?
    • What is the connection between the First Amendment and the Zenger case?
    • Why are libel laws in existence?
    • What would happen if a journalist could say anything?
    • Why are there so many steps in libel?


Activity 1

  • The teacher asks students to criticize in writing something that an authority figure has done, explain why he or she is criticizing and to offer a better solution. Example: “That George W. Bush is really bringing this country down by keeping our troops in Iraq. He is a liar for telling the American people we were going after WMD and he should bring our troops home now.”
  • After hearing a few of the students’ responses, the teacher will read the anti-sedition law and ask the class if what they had written would have been allowed back then.

Activity 2

  • After the teacher has thoroughly gone over the steps of libel, the teacher will pass out five situations in which libel may or may not have occurred. The students are then to decide if there can be a libel case with the information that is given them. They are to write their answer down on the line provided for them.

Activity 3

  • Again, breaking the class into four groups, the teacher will pass out one of the “protection from libel” definitions to each group.
  • After the group has read it and has answered the question, the teacher will read a situation of libel that is protected somehow.
  • The group that has the definition that is closest to the situation will raise their hand and tell the teacher why that situation is protected. The teacher will put each term and definition up so the class can make notes on all of them.

Activity 4

  • The teacher will pass out supermarket tabloid magazines and each group will choose one article and explain to the rest of the class why “Tom Cruise is an Alien” is not libel.


Students will write a paragraph explaining how the First Amendment is important in their lives, and a second paragraph that gives three examples of how they might aviod libel.


  • “Journalism Today” by Donald Ferguson and Jime Patten
  • “Law of Student Press” by the Student Press Law Center