Newspaper front page featuring story about protests and police in Ferguson.

The Importance of a Free Press

Students review the First Amendment, understand the importance of a free press, and consider how that freedom can conflict with other societal needs through journalists’ experiences in Ferguson.


At a Glance



English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Social Studies




Two 50-min class periods
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement
  • Racism


About This Lesson

The events in Ferguson underscored the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment, including freedom of speech and the right to assembly, but most significantly freedom of the press. 

In this lesson, after reviewing the text of the First Amendment, students will hear Washington Post journalist Wesley Lowery discuss his detention in Ferguson. They will then review a press conference with the police captain in charge of security to understand some of the challenges the police faced in guaranteeing safety for protesters, police, journalists, and community members. Finally, students will reflect on what’s at stake when press freedoms are threatened.

  • What is the role of the press in a democracy, and how does the First Amendment protect that role in the United States?
  • How can press freedoms come into conflict with other societal needs and priorities?
  • Students will be able to recall the First Amendment and the five freedoms it guarantees.
  • Students will be able to understand the importance of a free press in a democracy.
  • Students will be able to recognize the essential connection between freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
  • Students will be able to reflect on how freedom of the press can conflict with other needs or freedoms.
  • Students will be able to understand why a free press can serve as a “watchdog” on behalf of the public’s interest.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-minute class periods and includes:

  • 4 activities 
  • 3 teaching strategies
  • 2 videos
  • 1 reading
  • 1 extension activity

The events in Ferguson drew significant attention to the role of a free press in a democracy. In the days after the shooting of Michael Brown, a number of journalists were detained, searched, and arrested as they attempted to cover the story, while many others reported being harassed, questioned, and threatened by police as well as by protestors and community members. Many journalists and civil-liberties advocates highlighted these occurrences to make the point that preventing members of the press from doing their job puts democracy at risk.

These occurrences also highlight a broader issue: the fact that few Americans know all five freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment, beyond freedom of speech (which was identified by 57% of those surveyed). In the 2015 State of the First Amendment survey sponsored by the Newseum Institute, just 10% of Americans who were asked to name the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment mentioned freedom of the press, down from 14% in 2014. The only freedom that ranked lower was the right to petition the government, at 2%.

Amendment I
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment’s connection of freedom of speech and freedom of the press is significant. Free speech and a free press together allow people to obtain information from a wide range of sources that are not dictated or restricted by the government, so that they can make decisions, develop opinions, and communicate their views to the government (by voting, assembling, protesting, sharing ideas, etc.). Together, free speech and a free press are essential to the public’s ability to become informed and to actively participate in a democracy. 

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Lesson Plans


Before you explore the particular experiences of journalists in Ferguson, review the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment by examining the text of the amendment itself. Ask students to think about why freedom of speech and freedom of the press are so essential in a democracy.

  • Have students participate in a Big Paper activity based on the following prompt: Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” What do you think he meant? Do you agree with him? Do you think press freedoms should be absolute, or do you think they should have limits?

In the days after the shooting of Michael Brown, a number of journalists were detained, searched, or arrested as they attempted to cover the story, while many others reported being harassed, questioned, and threatened by police as well as by protestors and community members.

In small groups, ask students to think about what is beneath the surface of Lowery’s story using the Iceberg Diagram teaching strategy. What is at stake when a reporter is treated as he was? Why do you think the police acted the way they did? Were they justified? What information don’t we have, with only Lowery’s version of the story? Is there any context in which his treatment would be justified? How does this treatment threaten his First Amendment rights?

The shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent events in Ferguson were not isolated incidents, nor did they happen in a vacuum. To truly understand both the roots and the implications of what happened in Ferguson so that we can address the underlying systemic issues as a society is a significant undertaking, one requiring that all perspectives and experiences be heard and understood. Therefore, even though the scathing Justice Department report on the events underscored a fundamental pattern of racism and bias in Ferguson policing, it is important to hear the voices of the police describing their experiences.

On August 14, five days after the death of Michael Brown and following several days of peaceful and violent protest, Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, an African American officer, was put in charge of security operations in Ferguson. He held a press conference to address unrest on the evening of August 18. Though this was several days after Wesley Lowery was detained, Johnson’s statement provides another point of view on the actions of police and the challenges they faced.

  • Distribute copies of this transcript from the Police Press Conference in Ferguson to students and use the S.I.T. strategy to facilitate a class discussion. As they read, ask students to underline sentences that stand out to them and make note of at least one thing they find Surprising, Interesting, and Troubling. Alternatively, you could ask students to underline one or two sentences they found particularly important, insightful, and valuable and have them share their responses using the Save the Last Word for Me discussion strategy.
  • Ask students to share their S.I.T. observations (you may want to take notes on the board in three columns). Discuss these questions: What were some of the challenges facing the police in Ferguson in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death? How can the need to keep a community safe sometimes come into conflict with freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment? Do you believe that happened in Ferguson? Why or why not?

View the video “The Role and Challenges of a Free Press,” which describes the fundamental role of a free press in the United States. (Before viewing, distribute the transcript so students can take notes as they watch.)

  • After the video, have students reread the transcript and consider the earlier discussion about the First Amendment as well as the press conference with the police captain. In their journals, have students reflect on what they have learned about press freedoms, why those freedoms need to be protected, and when protecting them might come into conflict with other societal needs and priorities. Has the unit so far changed their opinion of, interest in, or understanding of the role of the press? Invite volunteers to share their reflections with the class.

Students can dig deeper into efforts to protect the freedom of the press in the wake of the police detention of journalists. Distribute the Committee for Freedom of the Press Letter sent by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to the Ferguson chief of police, St. Louis County chief of police, and head of the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Individually or in pairs, have students underline key phrases from the letter. How do the authors of the letter describe the significance of the treatment of journalists in Ferguson? What democratic principles do they feel have been violated? You may choose to do this exercise as a whole group or use the Chunking strategy to help guide students’ comprehension.

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