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Schenck v. United States DBQ

80 min
  • Students will trace how the debates regarding U.S. involvement in World War I led to official restrictions on free speech and a new articulation of the limits of free speech.
  • Students will analyze primary source documents using historical thinking skills.

Students should know how to approach primary sources, as well as some factual background regarding the events and time period of World War 1.

Lead a brief discussion to analyze the First Amendment’s free speech protections. See Handout A: Student Document Packet Part 1 and Handout B: Student Document Packet Part 2.

Distribute the document packet for the lesson, instructing students to work through only Documents A–H. They should not proceed to Document I, the Supreme Court opinion in Schenck v. the United States, until the Application class discussion. Have students work individually, with a partner, or in small groups to read each source in sequence and answer the accompanying questions.

After students have worked through Documents A–H, invite students to come back together to synthesize the content by leading a class discussion on the following reflective questions. Students may respond orally to each question or write their responses to each question, as best fits your classroom needs.

  • If you were Schenck’s attorney presenting oral arguments before the Supreme Court, what are the main points you would make for the Court’s consideration? Point to specific pieces of evidence from the documents to support your answer.
  • If you were the U.S. Attorney presenting oral arguments before the Supreme Court, what are the main points you would make for the Court’s consideration? Point to specific pieces of evidence from the documents to support your answer.
  • What is the question that the Supreme Court must answer? (Tip: this question should be phrased as a yes-or-no question referring specifically to the relevant law in the case and to one or more provisions of the U.S. Constitution. In this case, it might be something like this: “Did Schenck’s conviction under the Espionage Act violate Schenck’s First Amendment right to criticize the government and advocate action such as that suggested in his 1917 circular?”)
  • If you were a member of the Supreme Court, how would you decide this case?

Have students read Document I, Supreme Court Opinion in the Schenck case, and identify the sentence that best conveys the Court’s reasoning. Ask students to vote on whether the Supreme Court got it right or wrong.

Have each student write a thesis statement to the DBQ prompt: Explain how the United States’ involvement in World War I led to a new articulation of the First Amendment’s free speech protection.

You may solicit volunteers to share their thesis and workshop several using the following questions, or have students share with a partner and provide feedback on the following questions:

  • Does the thesis answer the question without restating the prompt?
  • Does the thesis make sense?
  • Is the thesis historically accurate?
  • Does the thesis provide clear and cohesive reasoning?
  • Does the thesis provide a road map or “table of contents” for an essay?

Thesis statements can be collected and assessed using the AP LEQ Rubric from the College Board for a successful thesis statement, or with an individual class rubric.

Depending on where students are in their understanding of the DBQ essay, have students outline their response or write a full essay, as best fits your teaching situation.

Students may wish to follow up by studying later Supreme Court decisions related to seditious speech:

Abrams v. United States (1919)

Gitlow v. New York (1925)

Whitney v. California (1927)

Dennis v. United States (1951)

United States v. O’Brien (1968)

Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969)

Texas v. Johnson (1989)

A favorably reviewed and highly readable book for high school students on these topics is Anthony Lewis’s Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment. New York: Basic Books: 2007.