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Two-day lesson plans


Two-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  Incidental interpretations mention Morse but do not cite or interpret it.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 four key Common Core standards focusing on collaboration, discussion, analysis, 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 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 turn their analysis into a presentation given during the second lesson.

In the second lesson, students will briefly look at and discuss 1-2 cases in which Morse was interpreted narrowly.  They will attempt to explain what factors may have contributed to the cases’ narrow holdings.  Next, the four groups from yesterday’s class will present their broadly interpreted cases to the class.  Students will discuss two questions after each presentation.  These questions and additional discussion questions in Activity 2 will help prepare students for the final activity: creating a media manual statement.  The statement will help students apply their knowledge of Morse in a way that helps them accomplish 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.


  • 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 media manual.

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.


  • Two 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 (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 (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 2 (15 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 (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 (30 minutes):  Split the class into four groups and assign one of the broadly interpreted cases to each group.  Post or distribute the Articles for Broadly Interpreted Cases document, 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:

  • 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 should finish or come close to finishing in the allotted 30 minutes.  Groups 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.  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 gleaned during 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.


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

  • Test the media manual statement you just created against case scenarios from the Case Handout document. Would it prevent this situation from ever having taken place?
  • 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 would vary drastically 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

One-day unit


Ancillary materials

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