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Duration
Less than 30 minutes
Topic(s)
  • Constitution
  • Journalism
  • National Security
  • Politics
Grade(s)
  • 9-12
  • College/University

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.

  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.

  • “45 Words” Video Lesson worksheet (download), one per student
  • “45 Words” reference materials (download, optional)
  • Internet access to watch “45 Words”

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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