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Elonis v. U.S.

This First Amendment activity applies the landmark Supreme Court case Elonis v. U.S. to a teen conflict posted on Facebook.

The First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech [.]”

Elonis v. U.S. is the first time that the Supreme Court of the United States has agreed to hear a case involving the constitutionality of prosecuting potential threats in a social media context. This is a relatively new and rapidly developing area of law. The Court’s decision may have far-reaching consequences for the development of First Amendment law, in general, and for students and others who use social media, in particular.

Most students and a majority of adults use some form of social media, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. The growth of social media has often blurred the lines between professional and personal conduct. 

What’s Different About This Activity?
  • Landmark Case with Teen Scenario
  • Realistic Court Simulation
  • Ready in 30 Minutes
  • Every Learning Style Involved
  • Centerpiece is Jury Deliberations
  • Challenges Media Stereotypes

Issues also have developed as statements made on social media are taken out of context. This is especially true when the individual who makes a statement cannot control who else views the statement and/or how others interpret it. For instance, several court cases have arisen over the authority of schools to discipline students for comments about teachers and school administrators that the students made outside of school on their own personal social media sites. 

There is common concern that comments made on social media sites may be misconstrued if they are taken out of context.  On the other hand, there are legitimate concerns that authorities must protect against cyberbullying, harassment, and threats that are made on social media. As a result, when they are drafting laws, state and the federal lawmakers struggle with how to balance First Amendment free speech rights with the interests of individuals who want to be free from harassment, fear, and intimidation on the Internet.

How to Use These Resources

This activity is a modified Oxford style debate. Download the agenda and complete activity package.

  1. While waiting for the program to start, participants review the agenda and read the Elonis  v. U.S. facts and case summary and fictional scenario.
  2. Students volunteer to be attorneys for each side – four student attorneys for Elonis and four student attorneys for the U.S.  They will work with attorney coaches to review the talking points they will present to the host Judge.  These are suggested points -- not a script–for the debate. Student attorneys are encouraged to add their own arguments.
  3. After the closing arguments are presented for both sides, all other students are jurors who deliberate during the open floor debate. They use the worksheets they have prepared to present their arguments.

The host Judge, attorney coaches, and student attorneys watch as the jurors debate in open court. The program moderator facilitates the arguments and makes sure that everyone has the opportunity to speak. As the debate comes to a close, the moderator asks for a show-of-hands vote. Because of time constraints, the verdict does not have to be unanimous.