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4th and 5th Grade Students Debate the First Amendment: Which Freedom Is Most Important?

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects five freedoms: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to peaceably assemble, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances.

Of these, which freedom do students think is the most important and why?

That is the question that was asked of 4th and 5th grade students across Pennsylvania for the 10th annual Citizenship Challenge, an essay-and-presentation competition sponsored by the Rendell Center for Civics and Civic Engagement in partnership with the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

The 2023-24 contest drew over 250 essay submissions from students. In some cases, a class sent in a single submission, while in other cases, a class might submit a package of essays from students working individually or in teams. The 11 finalists were invited to the National Constitution Center on Jan. 18, 2024, where they brought their ideas to life in short skits and songs performed before parents, teachers, and a panel of judges.

The full question asked of the students read:

“The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights in the American Constitution guarantees individual rights and is a foundation for life in the United States.  In your own words, explain the amendment, its importance to Americans, and indicate which freedom you think is most important and why.”

“Just think of what the founders did: They gave us the freedoms – to speak, freedom of the press, assembly, religion, all these great things you’re going to be speaking about,” said Marjorie Rendell, a senior judge on the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals and cofounder of the Rendell Center with former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, in her introduction.

The three-judge panel comprised former U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios, now chair of the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission; the Hon. Theodore McKee, a senior judge on the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals; and former Pennsylvania secretary of education Gerald Zahorchak.

This year’s four winning entries all selected freedom of speech as the most critical. As the first-place team, Buckingham Elementary School’s 5th grade class, wrote: “Our class had lengthy debates over the merits of each part of the amendment. We were not willing to give up any of these rights and we talked a lot about how our lives would be different if any of these rights were taken away. The more we discussed, we realized that the freedom of speech was a necessary part for the other four freedoms. Freedom of Speech was like a foundation or starting point.”

The class essay continued: “If you don’t have free speech, then you won’t have a free press that isn’t controlled by the government. If you don’t have free speech, you can’t express your religious beliefs or protest the government. While the right to gather doesn’t 100% depend on free speech, we felt that the government would try to control gatherings if free speech doesn’t exist to make sure there was no anti-government talk. As a result, we feel that the Freedom of Speech part of the First Amendment to the Constitution is the most important right upon which many other rights build their foundation.”

The winners were:

1st place: Buckingham Elementary School, Linda Monkoski’s 5th grade class

2nd place (tie): Glenwood Elementary School, Rachael Pinsley’s 5th grade class; William Penn Charter School, Ms. Davenport-Mrs. Durso’s 5th grade class

3rd place: Upper Moreland Intermediate School, Amanda Gilman’s 5th grade class

See the student performances on Pennsylvania Cable Network’s website. At the PCN link below, scroll down to Elections and select the video for Citizenship Challenge, 01/18/24.

The first-place team won $1,000 to be used toward a program that promotes civics learning and engagement across the student body, while each of the runners-up won $500 to be used toward a program that promotes civics learning and engagement.