45 Words

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Explore: The First Amendment, freedom of the press, sedition, the Founding Fathers, the Bill of Rights, political dissent, the role of the press, early American history.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, a free press, freedom of religion, the right to assembly and the right to petition. Actor Martin Sheen narrates this story of the political struggles involved in establishing the First Amendment and the challenges it faced in the decades that followed.

Support for "45 Words" was provided by William and Judith Scheide in honor of John Milton's 400th birthday and the publication Areopagitica.


This video and viewing guide examine the origins of freedom of the press in America, beginning with rising tensions between politicians and newspaper publishers in the years that followed the Revolutionary War. Democratic-Republican publishers, concerned that the Federalists' push for a strong centralized government would jeopardize individual liberties, lobbed cutting insults at George Washington, John Adams and anyone else they saw as betraying the ideals of the Revolution. The Federalists, bracing for a possible war with France and fearful that such sharp criticism could destabilize the young nation, passed the Sedition Act, banning any speech or publication intended to undermine the government. Publishers across the republic went to jail and paid steep fines, and public disapproval of the law grew until the Federalists lost power in 1800, when Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson won the presidency. Learn more about how the First Amendment survived its first significant challenge and how it continues to play a role in our lives today.

Recommended grade levels: High school; college

Essential Questions:

  • How did the First Amendment function in early America after the Revolutionary War? How does it function today?
  • Why did the First Amendment face challenges in the years that followed its ratification? What were these challenges? What have the lasting effects of these challenges been?
  • What is sedition? How has the definition of sedition evolved over the course of American history?
  • What is the role of the press in American politics?
  • How has the role of the press in American society evolved over time?
  • What is the role of opinion in journalism? How can we distinguish fact from opinion in journalism, and why is it important to do this?