Pages Navigation Menu

Five-day lesson plans


Five-Day Morse v. Frederick Unit

Background Information and Description

Basic knowledge of Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), Bethel v. Fraser (1986), and Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988) is important for both students and advisers.  The first ten minutes of this lesson plan is devoted to a brief review of these three cases, which composed the original triumvirate of cases used by lower courts in student free expression cases.  The Tinker case set the original standard for First Amendment rights in school: expression that did not invade the privacy of others or cause “substantial disruption” was protected.  Fraser carved out the first exception to Tinker—obscene speech could be censored.  Hazelwood carved out another exception—school-sponsored speech could be restricted due to “legitimate pedagogical concerns.”  The Morse case created the third exception to the Tinker “substantial disruption” standard: speech advocating illegal drug use.

The lower courts have interpreted Morse in three different ways.  Narrow interpretations maintain the original intent (specified in Justice Samuel Alito’s concurring opinion) that Morse should only apply to speech advocating illegal drug use.  Broad interpretations expand Morse to include speech advocating illegal actions, unlawful behavior, illegal conduct, or illegal behavior.  Incidental interpretations mention Morse but do not cite or interpret it.  These cases may instead rely on one of the other three landmark Supreme Court cases in their decisions.  For more information about the Morse case, consult the Instructors’ Background Information sheet.

The lessons are aligned to seven key Common Core standards focusing on collaboration, discussion, analysis, argument writing, and presentation.

In the first lesson, students will become familiar with the Supreme Court case Morse v. Frederick and its applications for scholastic journalism.  The lesson begins with a KWL chart (a graphic organizer in which students mark what they Know, Want to know, and Learn about a topic) and an anticipation guide (a conversation starter that helps students connect), followed by a brief overview of the three landmark Supreme Court cases mentioned above.  Students then become acquainted with the Morse case facts and decision before delving into the ways lower courts have interpreted the case.  Next, students will spend a few minutes analyzing broadly interpreted lower court cases.  They will turn their analysis into a presentation given during the second lesson.

In the second lesson, students will briefly examine and discuss 1-2 cases in which Morse was interpreted narrowly.  They will attempt to explain what factors may have contributed to narrow holdings rather than broad ones.  Next, the four groups will present their broadly interpreted cases to the class.  Students will discuss two questions after each presentation.  These and additional discussion questions in Activity 2 will help prepare students to create a media manual statement.  The statement will help students apply their knowledge of Morse in a way that accomplishes two tasks: avoiding any expression that may allow Morse to be invoked, and educating administrators and the school board on the meaning and intent of the Morse decision.

In the third lesson, the students will participate in an extended roleplaying scenario.  The scenario revolves around a set of case facts that would require a judge to interpret Morse either narrowly or broadly.  Students will represent several different groups (editors, administrators, judges, and adviser) as they attempt to gain a deeper understanding of Morse and its applications.

In the fourth lesson, students will plan, draft, and edit a persuasive letter.  The letter will attempt to convince a particular recipient or group of recipients that Morse was meant to be interpreted narrowly and should remain that way.  This project can and should be modified to fit any program’s needs.

In the fifth lesson, students will demonstrate understanding of Morse and/or other landmark Supreme Court decisions by creating a teaching model aimed at a particular group of people.  Students will determine whom to educate, and work in small groups to create an effective handout, website, FAQ, or other model.  This project can and should be modified to fit any program’s needs.


  • Students will demonstrate knowledge of the facts of the Morse decision and how it fits with previous Supreme Court decisions.
  • Students will analyze recent lower court cases, and use outside sources to determine why the judges interpreted Morse
  • Students will utilize discussion outcomes regarding potential limitations the Morse decision could place on student journalists in order to create an effective statement for the program’s manual.
  • Students will complete three culminating activities reinforcing Morse’s applications to their program.

Key Common Core Standards

Standard Number Description
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.9 Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.11-12.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11-12 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.11-12.5 Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest.

Introduce precise, knowledgeable claim(s), establish the significance of the claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that logically sequences claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.


Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly and thoroughly, supplying the most relevant evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level, concerns, values, and possible biases.


Use words, phrases, and clauses as well as varied syntax to link the major sections of the text, create cohesion, and clarify the relationships between claim(s) and reasons, between reasons and evidence, and between claim(s) and counterclaims.


Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline in which they are writing.


Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the argument presented.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.7 Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.1 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.


  • Five 90-minute blocks

Materials / Resources

  • Promethean Board or computer that projects onto a screen
  • Student computers, laptops, or iPads
  • Resources from the unit plan folder

Lesson 1 Step-by-Step

Bellringer (15 minutes):  Have students make a KWL chart.  Give them five minutes to fill out the first two columns of the chart (what they Know and what they Want to know about Morse v. Frederick).  Have the students do the Anticipation Guide in the unit folder, too.

Activity 1 (10 minutes):  Review Tinker, Hazelwood, and Fraser by discussing the Limitations on Scholastic Journalism document.  Be sure to focus on the bolded passages, and discuss what the exceptions mean for student media.[1]

Activity 2 (15 minutes):  Project the following YouTube video from a high school teacher on the board.  The video discusses the facts of the Morse case, as well as the decision and some ramifications.  Please note for your students that the teacher’s explanation of the Morse decision itself should recognize the intended focus on illegal drug use.

Activity 3 (20 minutes):  Post the following link and give students 3-4 minutes to read the article individually:

When students are finished reading, spend a few minutes discussing the Morse decision.  Ask the following questions:

  1. How does this decision fit with the three cases we discussed at the beginning of class?
  2. Is it a new standard for courts, or simply another exception like Hazelwood and Fraser?
  3. What implications could you imagine this case having for scholastic journalism?
  4. Given your prior knowledge of student First Amendment rights, do you think the Supreme Court got this case right? Why or why not?

Activity 4 (20 minutes):  Distribute the Case Handout file to students.  Either print it, post it on Google Drive, or post it on a website.  Briefly explain the difference between narrow, broad, and incidental interpretations of Morse.  Refer to the Background Information section of this document if necessary.

Pick 2-3 cases to discuss with students.  The process of case selection should be personal and tailored to your program.  Consider:

  • Location: Picking cases that have taken place in your circuit
  • Facts of the cases: Aspects of the cases that resonate with issues at your school or even within your program
  • Types of interpretations: Choosing one of each type of interpretation (narrow, broad, and incidental) using location and facts of the case to make final determinations

Closing/Homework (10 minutes):  Split the class into four groups and assign one of the broadly interpreted cases to each group.  Post the document Articles for Broadly Interpreted Cases, and ask students to use the provided articles (together with any other resources the students find to utilize) to research the cases.

The groups should create a brief PowerPoint or Prezi with the following information.  Each person in the group should do one section of the presentation (or adapt as necessary)

  • Facts of the case
  • How it was decided
  • Factors that led to broad interpretation (may require other sources or student analysis)
  • How (if possible) this staff can avoid the factors that led to a broad interpretation

The groups will have little time to begin the project during this class period, so they must come prepared the following day to present their cases to the class for discussion.


Lesson 2 Step-by-Step

Bellringer (15 minutes):  Choose one or two cases from the Case Handout document that were narrowly interpreted.  Use the criteria from the previous lesson (location, facts of the case, etc.) as you consider which cases to choose.  In preparation for the media manual statement the staff will create later in the lesson, ask students the following questions.  Use the Case Handout document for case facts, and search for any additional case information or analysis as needed.

  • Considering the broadly interpreted cases you analyzed last class, why did this judge interpret Morse narrowly? Possible answers:
    • Differences in the case facts
    • Precedent in that circuit
    • The judges recognized Alito’s concurring statement
  • Can we learn anything from these narrowly interpreted cases that will help us protect our program from being punished under Morse? What do we need to either do or refrain from doing?

Activity 1 (30 minutes):  The four groups that worked on yesterday’s lesson should present their lessons.  The presentations should last 2-3 minutes each, and after each presentation the adviser should ask the following questions.  Make sure the editor-in-chief or some other staff member is taking notes.

  • What factors may have contributed to the judges’ broad interpretation of Morse? (Consider location, case facts, precedent, and any other relevant information.)
  • Do we need to consider aspects of this case or its decision when we create our media manual statement?

Ask the students to email you their presentations so they can be housed on Google Drive or a website.

Activity 2 (20 minutes):  Ask students the following questions.  Remind them to consider the media manual statement the staff will create in the final activity.

  • Now that you know more about Morse and how it has been applied, discuss its importance and relevance for scholastic media. (Make sure the students remember that decisions from their circuit are more applicable.)
  • What limitations could this case place on our program?
  • How could we try to avoid these limitations?

Activity 3 (25 minutes):  Create a brief, 50-100 word statement for the media manual.  The goal of this statement should be twofold.  It should:

  • help staff members understand and work around the limitations of Morse discussed earlier this class period
  • attempt to keep administrators from overstepping the reaches of Morse

The first goal requires consideration of the school’s location (both because of the circuit it’s in, and for cultural reasons such as religion and politics).  It will also require the application of knowledge distilled from this unit.

The second goal requires a strong definition of what Morse covers (from reliable sources).  Alito’s concurring opinion would be a strong place to start crafting such a definition.


Lesson 3 Step-by-Step

Activity 1 (10 minutes):  Introduce the roleplaying scenario using the Roleplaying document.  Read the page and follow the directions.

Activity 2 (35 minutes):  Each group must come up with arguments.  During this time, the judges should review the four relevant Supreme Court cases using the Supreme Court Case Facts document in the Ancillary Materials folder.  The adviser, poor soul, must determine what to do by seeking professional help online or utilizing existing knowledge.

Activity 3 (20 minutes):  The editors present their case to the judges.  The administrators then defend their case, and the adviser must determine what to do (or not do).

Activity 4 (15 minutes): Judges should deliberate in private and decide the case.  They must provide justification for their answer by citing Tinker, Hazelwood, Fraser, or Morse.  Whichever case they cite, Morse must be interpreted either narrowly or broadly.  The judges need to explain why they interpreted Morse the way they did.

Closing (10 minutes):  Discuss as a group:

  • How could the staff have protected against this issue in the first place?
  • Does our statement properly cover this?


Lesson 4 Step-by-Step

Activity 1 (20 minutes):  Through discussion with the students, determine the best recipient for a letter about the Morse decision—should it be administrators/school board?  Judges?  Someone else?  Consider your program’s needs as you make this decision:

  • If the program is or has already experienced legal issues with administrators, perhaps they should be the recipient of the letter.
  • If the program has not experienced legal issues, consider sending the letter to judges or legislators who could benefit from a better understanding of Morse’s original intention of only applying to illegal drug use.

Take this discussion seriously because letters are only effective if they reach an appropriate audience.

Activity 2 (5 minutes):  Split into groups—format, opening, information, and argument.  Create a Google Doc to work from.  Before starting the letter, discuss its focus:

  • Disputing current rulings (judges/legislators)?
  • Keeping administrators or judges from interpreting Morse broadly?
  • Something else?

Activity 3 (35 minutes):  One group of junior staff members should research proper letter format and take care of the format, salutation and closing.  Another group should develop the opening section of the letter (its purpose statement).  A third group must present the information necessary for understanding Morse (the premise for the argument).  The final group must write the brief argument itself.

Activity 4 (20 minutes):  Come back together.  Editors lead a discussion of how to streamline and combine the letter to make it as effective as possible.  Students should not worry about the letter’s style just yet.

Closing/Homework (10 minutes):  Now the staff must fit the pieces of the letter together.  Assign the editor-in-chief the task of turning the letter into a coherent piece with singular focus and style.  This may take time outside of class.


Lesson 5 Step-by-Step

Activity 1 (20 minutes):  Determine the best method of teaching either Morse or all four major Supreme Court cases dealing with student First Amendment rights.  The staff could create a handout, a website, a podcast, an FAQ, or an editorial or other feature for the program itself.  To determine the best medium, consider the following questions:

  • Who is our intended audience?
    • Administrators
    • School board
    • Legislators
    • Judges
    • The public
    • Other students
  • What is our purpose?
    • Inform
    • Persuade
  • What information is most important?
    • Just Morse?
    • All four Supreme Court cases?
  • Which medium will best accomplish all these tasks?

Activity 2 (5 minutes):  The editor-in-chief should divide the class into groups.  Each section editor could oversee one group.  If the class decides to teach about all four cases, simply divide the groups by court case.  If the class decides to teach about Morse, simply find a way of organizing the class into appropriate groups by task (research, design, writing, etc.).

Activity 3 (50 minutes):  The staff must work together in small groups to create whatever teaching model they chose.  Ask the editor-in-chief to roam about the class helping groups in whatever capacity they require.  Students should spend the vast majority of the class period properly researching and fact-checking (utilizing the SPLC and other reliable sources) as they create their assigned sections of the project in whatever medium they chose.

Closing (15 minutes):  Come back together as a class and test the teaching model.  Reiterate the original intentions set forth at the beginning of class:

  • Intended audience
  • Purpose
  • Most important information
  • Medium that best accomplishes the task


  • Test the media manual statement you created in lesson 2 against case scenarios from the Case Handout document. Would it prevent these situations from ever having taken place?
  • Complete the first lesson’s KWL chart (final column).
  • Discuss the five questions from the Anticipation Guide document.

[1] Some advisers may not need to spend much time reviewing this information with their students, but others may need to spend part of a class period teaching these cases before engaging in this Morse lesson.


Return to teaching units and home:

Three-day unit

Two-day unit

One-day unit


Ancillary materials

Leave a Comment