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‘45 Words’ Video Lesson

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Actor Martin Sheen narrates this story of the political struggles involved in establishing the First Amendment and early challenges to it.

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This video features interviews with modern-day journalists and scholars and with actors dressed as historical figures. All of the actors’ words are direct quotations taken from primary sources (letters, books and newspapers) from the era depicted in the video.

GRADE LEVEL: High school and college

TIME: Less than 30 minutes

MATERIALS: “45 Words” Video Lesson worksheet (download), an Internet connection to watch “45 Words,” “45 Words” handout (download, optional), teacher key

PREPARE: Print copies of the viewing guide, one per student.

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Overview PDF DOC
Worksheets PDF DOC
Extensions PDF DOC
Full Packet PDF DOC

To request a large print or Braille version, call 202.292.6650.


  1. Tell students that they will learn the origins of freedom of the press in America. Check for background knowledge by asking:
    • What do you know about the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment?
    • Should we be allowed to criticize our government? Why or why not?
    • What is the role of the press in political affairs?
  2. Remind students of the rationale behind the Federalist and Antifederalist positions.
    • Democratic-Republican publishers, concerned that the Federalists’ push for a strong centralized government would jeopardize individual liberties, lobbed insults at George Washington, John Adams and anyone else they saw as betraying the ideals of the Revolution.
    • The Federalists, bracing for a possible war with France and fearful that such sharp criticism could destabilize the young nation, passed the Sedition Act, banning any speech or publication intended to undermine the government. Publishers across the republic went to jail and paid steep fines, and public disapproval of the law grew until the Federalists lost power in 1800, when Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson won the presidency.
  3. Explain that as they watch the video, students will see how the First Amendment survived its first significant challenge and how it continues to play a role in our lives today. Hand out copies of the viewing guide. Students should review the questions before you start the video and then take notes as they watch it.
  4. Watch the video.
  5. The after-you-watch comprehensive questions can be done in class or for homework.
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Ask your students to reflect on the tension between freedom of press and national security and unity. Discuss or assign one or more of these questions as short essays for homework:

  • Does sedition exist today? If yes, what does it look/sound like? If not, why not?
  • What should be the role of opinion in journalism? Is it ever OK for journalism to express biased opinions about politics or other issues? Where do we generally see opinionated or advocacy journalism today?
  • In the video, law professor R.B. Bernstein describes the political tensions in early America, saying, “The question is: Can we fight these things out and still remain united? We’re used to the idea. They’re not. They’re scared.” Are fights a necessary part of the political process? How should we handle dissenting opinions so that all voices are heard but debates do not tear the country apart?
  • The video quotes Thomas Jefferson saying, “If it were left up to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I shouldn’t hesitate for a moment to choose newspapers.” Why would Jefferson choose newspapers over government? Would you make the same choice? Why or why not? How would our country be different if there were no news media?
  • How far should freedom of press extend? Where should we draw the line between protected criticism of the government and ideas that could cause harm to the country or its citizens?
  • Concerns about sedition often arise at times of war or political unrest. Why do you think this is the case? Are there any circumstances under which we should place more limits on freedom of the press? When and why?
  • In the video, journalist and author Eric Burns says, “Civility just did not seem to have a place in the [early American] press. Too much at stake. In addition, the press was as vile as it was back in those days because there was no tradition of fairness.” What does Burns mean when he says there was “too much at stake” for the early American press? Compare and contrast the role and workings of today’s press to the early American press. Does today’s press follow the “tradition of fairness” Burns describes?
  • Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” What does Franklin mean? Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?
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  1. Find the full text of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 (available here: Make a chart that compares and contrasts: the reasons leading to the passage of each law, the specific acts each law outlawed, the punishments described, and each law’s effects.
  1. At the time depicted in the video, newspapers were the main medium for publishing news. Today, a much greater variety of communication tools is available. Choose a quotation that interests you from one of the historical figures in the video. (You may need to watch it again to find your quotation.) Determine what this quotation means, then translate the main idea into modern language and communicate it using a variety of modern media: a Twitter posting, a Facebook status update, a YouTube video, a blog post, a text message, etc. Choose at least three forms of modern media.
  1. What limits do we put on First Amendment freedoms? What limits should we put on First Amendment freedoms? Visit the First Amendment Center’s website ( and select one First Amendment freedom. Read the overview of the freedom and make a chart that lists how you can use the freedom and how you cannot use the freedom. Then write a paragraph describing what you think the limits on this freedom should be. What should be allowed? What should not be allowed? Why?
  1. Benjamin Franklin Bache and Matthew Lyon were not the only individuals tried under the 1798 Sedition Act. Write a short report about one of the following individuals and their involvement with sedition: James Thomson Callender, Samuel Chase, Thomas Cooper or William Patterson.
  1. Choose a historical figure from the “Need to Know” list of key people. Research this person and write a more extended biography, focusing on his or her connections to the First Amendment, the press and the Sedition Act.
  1. Create a timeline of sedition cases throughout American history. On your timeline, also include major historical events to provide context for the court cases.
  1. Collect three recent newspaper editorials or opinion articles that take a critical stance against something the government is doing. (You can find these in the editorial and op-ed pages of a printed newspaper or on the “Opinion” page of an online newspaper site.) For each editorial or opinion article, make a chart. At the top, summarize the argument the piece is making. Underneath, list the facts cited and opinions expressed. At the bottom, explain whether you agree or disagree with the position taken and why.
  1. While prosecution of the press for sedition has become rare, libel cases remain common in today’s court system. Research what libel is. (Start with this overview: Prepare a presentation to explain to your classmates what libel is, including the “PIHF checklist” and the four defenses against libel. Also explain the similarities and differences between libel and sedition.


Teacher Key

‘45 Words’ Viewing Guide

Questions as You Watch

  1. How did people in early America share their ideas and opinions? What forms of communication existed? The printing press; newspapers, books, pamphlets.
  1. Who were the Federalists? What did they believe? Who were the Democratic-Republicans? What did they believe? Federalists: political party that supported the Constitution and a strong central government; Democratic-Republicans: political party that wanted guarantees of individual liberty, pushed for ratification of the Bill of Rights.
  1. What was the Sedition Act of 1798? Why did it come about? Law that outlawed publishing criticism of the government; concern that such ideas could undermine the power of the government; came about because the country was young and untested and faced a potential conflict with France.
  1. What happened to writers and newspaper publishers who criticized the government in the decades immediately after the Revolutionary War? They could be fined and/or jailed.
  1. How did the press play a role in shaping our nation’s political history?Promoting/criticizing certain political candidates; fighting against the Sedition Act (eventually overturned); alerting citizens to political developments.
  1. How have people used the First Amendment in the 200 years since the period depicted in this video? Abolitionists, women’s suffrage movement and civil rights movement all used the First Amendment to achieve their goals.

Comprehension Questions

  1. What does the title “45 Words” refer to? What freedoms do these 45 words give us? How do you use these freedoms?( Give at least three examples.) The First Amendment; religion, speech, press, assembly and petition; answers will vary.
  1. In the video, publisher William Cobbett describes the Sedition Act as making it illegal to “write, utter, publish any false, scandalous and malicious writings against the government or the president or either house of Congress with the intent to defame or bring them into disrepute or excite against them the hatred of the good people of the United States.” In your own words, explain what the Sedition Act made illegal. Then give your opinion: Was it a good law? Why or why not? Answers will vary.
  1. Why was U.S. Rep. Matthew Lyon imprisoned? Do you think this was a fair punishment? Why or why not? For publishing criticism of the government and the possible war with France in his newspaper (called “the scourge of aristocracy”); answers will vary.
  1. In the video, Benjamin Franklin Bache calls President John Adams “old, querulous, bald, blind, crippled, toothless Adams.” How do you think President Adams felt about being called these things? Why might he have wanted to stop the publication of this type of material? He did not like being belittled and criticized; if people heard and believed these criticisms, it could undermine his ability to govern and harm his chances at re-election.
  1. Who has used the First Amendment to criticize the government and advocate for change in the years since the events depicted in this video? How have they used these rights? Answers will vary; example: The women’s suffrage movement used freedom of assembly to gather together and freedom of petition to ask the government to pass the 19th Amendment and give women the right to vote.
  1. Today, the First Amendment protects our right to criticize our government and publish those criticisms. Describe something you wish our current government would or would not do. Explain your position. Answers will vary.
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