Secondary Preservice Teachers’ Knowledge of the First Amendment

From Section:
Preservice Teachers
Sep. 01, 2011

Source: Teacher Education Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 4, Fall 2011, p. 115-133
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This study aimed to investigate the level of knowledge of students’ First Amendment rights among secondary preservice teachers in various disciplines and their confidence in dealing with First Amendment issues in the classroom. The researchers investigated how preservice teachers learn about First Amendment issues in the classroom by studying preservice teachers’ preparation and their experiences, such as other academic experiences, news, and prior careers.

The researchers used both quantitative and qualitative methods. They collected quantitative data using a Web-based survey developed by the researchers. The researchers also conducted interviews.
The participants were 110 secondary education preservice teachers in mathematics, science, English, foreign language, and social studies. The preservice teachers were students in the College of Education’s Department of Secondary Education in Florida and were, at the time of the study, taking courses in one of the college’s programs that lead to teacher certification in their respective areas.


The findings of this study provide evidence that when pre-service teachers have experience with a particular First Amendment issue, they have more confidence in their ability to deal with that issue in the classroom. For the majority of the preservice teachers in this study, when they had confidence in dealing with a particular issue, they were also an interventionist. However, preservice teachers who were less confident were more likely to seek advice from a fellow teacher or an administrator before taking any disciplinary action. When preservice teachers believed that the students had a First Amendment right to do what they were doing in the particular situation, they were also less likely to take any action or consult another teacher or administrator.

The confidence level of preservice teachers is important. While teacher educators strive to instill confidence in preservice teachers’ ability to manage the classroom without the need for intervention, that may not be the case for First Amendment issues. In the case of First Amendment issues, teacher educators should strive to educate preservice teachers so that they can recognize situations in the classroom that have First Amendment implications and notify the appropriate administrator. When making decisions about whether the action in the scenarios violated students’ First Amendment rights, the preservice teachers relied on four criteria: school policy, offensiveness, a sense of right or wrong, and apprehension. These criteria were influenced by their experiIanences as students and teachers and concern about the consequences of making the wrong decision.

Many of the preservice teachers identified school policy as the most important source for making decisions about First Amendment issues and felt that the school decided what rights students had in the classroom. However, the preservice teachers had inferred what the school policy was and did not remember the particular policy or how they learned about that policy. In addition, they seemed to think that school policies were somewhat universal and that a policy at one school would apply to different situations.

Preservice teachers also identified offensiveness as a criterion for making decisions regarding students’ First Amendment rights. Many of the preservice teachers believed that if a student’s expression could offend other students, restricting that expression was justified. Preservice teachers used their sense of right and wrong as another criterion for deciding what to do when confronted with an issue involving students’ First Amendment rights. While there are value judgments inherent in any number of decisions made by teachers, it is important for classroom teachers to understand Court precedents when limiting student expression. By using individual values as a guide to make these decisions, the amount of expression allowed will vary from classroom to classroom, and the teacher’s actions could lead to violations of the First Amendment.

The final criterion preservice teachers used when making decisions regarding First Amendment issues was concern about the consequences of student expression. Without proper preparation, preservice teachers will be guided by these criteria rather than the standards that have been set by the Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Implications for Teacher Education

The findings from this study confirm previous findings that pre-service teachers need better preparation in educational law, specifically in the area of First Amendment issues, and that the preparation needs to be systematic and program-wide (Gullatt & Tollet, 1997; Sametz & Mcloughlin, 1984; Schachter, 2007; Wagner, 2007). However, only two of ten interview participants thought that creating a mandatory educational law class would be the best solution. When discussing how to include students’ First Amendment rights in the curriculum, many preservice teachers believed that the case study method would provide the best strategy for teaching them how to deal with the First Amendment issues. Case studies could be particularly effective because as students discuss their reactions to student expression scenarios, underlying preconceived notions can be elucidated. At the very least, instruction of this type may lead to teacher educators being more informed and more thoughtful regarding student expression as they enter the teaching profession.


The preservice teachers in this study clearly were not prepared to effectively deal with First Amendment issues in the classroom, as evidenced by their lack of knowledge as to when they could limit student expression or as defined by the low confidence they reported when making their decisions. By exposing preservice teachers to the directives of the courts, research, and the ideas of other preservice teachers, they can hopefully prepare future teachers to effectively deal with the complex First Amendment issues that will likely occur in the classroom during their career. Better preparation may lead to a reduction in costly lawsuits, less violation of school policies, and ample protection of students’ freedom of expression.

Gullatt, D., & Tollett, J. (1997). Educational law: A requisite course for pre-service and inservice teacher education programs. Journal of Teacher Education, 48(2), 129-135.

Sametz, L., & Mcloughlin, S. (1984). Curriculum innovation: Legal education. Educational Horizons.

Schachter, R. (2007). See you in court! District Administration, 04, 33-36.

Wagner, P. (2007). An evaluation of the legal literacy of educators and the implications for teacher preparation programs. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Educational Law Association, San Diego, CA.

Updated: Jan. 02, 2020
Democracy | Preservice teachers | Secondary school teachers | Student rights | Teacher educators