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One-day lesson plan


One-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.  For more information about the Morse case, consult the Instructors’ Background Information sheet.

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  Incidental interpretations mention Morse but do not cite or interpret it.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.

In this lesson, students will become familiar with the Supreme Court case Morse v. Frederick and its applications for scholastic journalism.  The lesson is aligned to three key Common Core standards focusing on collaboration, discussion, and analysis.

The lesson begins with 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 long period of time collaboratively analyzing a broadly interpreted lower court case.  They will post their analysis on a shared Google Doc.  Finally, the class will further discuss how the various methods of interpreting Morse could affect their media program.


  • 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 discuss potential limitations the Morse decision could place on student journalists and how to work around these limitations.

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.


  • One 90-minute block

Materials / Resources

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

Bellringer (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 1 (3 minutes):  Project the following YouTube video from CNN onto the board.  The video succinctly discusses the facts of the Morse case but does not discuss the decision itself.  Allow students to determine how the case was decided by completing Activity 2.

Activity 2 (12 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 3 (15 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 media 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 media 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

Activity 4 (40 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 editor-in-chief should create and share a Google Doc with the class.  The document should contain a header for each of the four court cases.  The groups should create a brief (maybe ¼ page) table with the following information:

  • 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 the case’s broad interpretation

The groups should finish in 30-35 minutes so they can quickly read about the other groups’ cases before the final discussion.


Closing (10 minutes):  Ask students the following questions:

  • 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?


Assessment options for this brief unit are numerous.  Consider one of the following assessment methods:

  • Ask the editors to use the case study Google Doc and today’s discussion notes to create a statement for the program’s handbook. The statement should help staff members understand the limitations of Morse and also attempt to keep administrators from overstepping the reaches of Morse.  (Directions in Ancillary Materials folder)
  • If your program has had issues with the school board or administrators, have the students write a letter either in small groups or as a class. The focus of the letter will vary greatly depending on your particular situation.  (Directions in Ancillary Materials folder)
  • Role-play a situation that could result in your program going to court for something that would require the judges to interpret (Directions in Ancillary Materials folder)
  • Create a website or handout that would teach a specific group of people (administrators, the public, etc.) about Morse and why it should be interpreted narrowly. (Directions in Ancillary Materials folder)

[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:

Five-day unit 

Three-day unit

Two-day unit


Ancillary materials

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