Protectors of the First Amendendment— The Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee University

A group of women wearing jeans and red t shirts standing outside, next to a sign with a QR Code that reads "Scan to Eat"
Members of the Martin Hall Agency Team encouraging WVU students to stop by their “Taste of Freedom BBQ.”

The First Amendment— the foundation of American democracy as we know it— is under attack. Students at West Virginia University showed a general lack of understanding and knowledge about the First Amendment. Most concerningly, students did not seem to care about their freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition, with most students unable to name all five.

Thus, it was our goal to educate students on WVU’s campus about their protections guaranteed by the First amendment and educate them on why they should care about them. Our challenge: shifting attitudes on the First Amendment from misconstrued and undervalued to understood and appreciated. 

Research Insights

After a deep dive into academic and trade literature, as well as reviewing other campaigns and organizations with aligned missions, we found that many people viewed the First Amendment as a political or partisan issue. We also found that students simply lacked knowledge of what the First Amendment was or how to apply the freedoms within it. Further, we understood that while the campaign needed to be informative, it also needed to have an element of fun and engagement that appealed to self-interest.
To move from national insights to better understanding the WVU environment where our campaign would be launched, we also conducted extensive primary research including:

  • Expert interviews with WVU College of Law professors
  • Man-on-the-street interviews in front of WVU’s student union
  • Focus group with questions about First Amendment knowledge and perceptions of other campaigns
  • Quiz testing WVU students knowledge of the First Amendment. 

Our research confirmed that college students lacked a general understanding of and emotion towards the First Amendment and the attacks against it. Specific findings included the most commonly unknown or forgotten freedoms were assembly and petition. We also found that many students remain hesitant in speaking out about attacks against the First Amendment due to fear of not knowing enough or seeming too political. Finally, we found that the knowledge of students within the College of Media was not significantly greater, and in some areas less than, students in other university units.

Research Findings

Two red circles with white text that reads "Many students were unaware of their rights and could not name the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment" and "Many students felt that anything involving the First Amendment was a political or partisan issue"

Target Audience

Based on our research, we also identified three audience segments for the campaign: uninformed, informed and hesitant, and informed and initiated. 

The first segment, uniformed, referred to students who had little to no knowledge of the First Amendment and the freedoms it protects. The primary goal for this segment was to change this lack of knowledge into informed WVU students who are aware of the First Amendment and the freedoms it entails.  

The second segment, informed and hesitant, was made up of people who are aware of the First Amendment’s five freedoms but did not take action to defend them or educate others. This complacency may be due to fear of social backlash or not knowing “enough.” The goal for this segment was to give this group confidence in their knowledge of the First Amendment and make them care about attacks on the First Amendment.

The third segment, informed and initiated, is a group made up of students familiar with the First Amendment and who take action to educate others and themselves on the topic. We knew that this segment would be crucial in garnering support for our campaign and its goals. Since the awareness of the First Amendment’s attacks against it are a familiar and personal issue for this group, it was important for our team to get them to participate in our campaigns and these students have the power to influence and educate their peers to do the same.

The Message

Building on our research insights, we developed a governing brand idea that would serve as the media agnostic key message throughout our campaign.

“Complacency is Compliancy”

Governing Brand Idea

Creating First Amendment Protectors

We wanted our campaign to educate WVU students about the importance of the First Amendment and why they should protect it. To increase student awareness of the First Amendment, we executed both digital and event based strategies with tactics that included a scavenger hunt, an online First Amendment Credential certification, a First Amendment magazine and a “Taste of Freedom” barbeque. A website was developed to serve as a central hub for all aspects of this campaign. 

Digital Scavenger Hunt & Badging Program

The purpose of the First Amendment credential is to ensure that college students are aware of their First Amendment freedoms and can practice and protect them in their daily lives. This badge will prove a student’s knowledge and awareness of the importance of the First Amendment and why it needs to be protected. To earn the badge, students are required to complete a digital scavenger hunt that introduces them to compelling information in a fun and engaging way.  After completing the scavenger hunt, there is a short quiz that tests their knowledge. Successfully completing the quiz results in a certification and badge being emailed to the student. Additionally, we submitted a badge proposal to the WVU Teaching and Learning Commons to award students a credential if they successfully completed a First Amendment quiz. 

White badge with a red outline on a blue background. The badge has an American flag on it and text that reads "Freedom Comes First, 1st Amendment Awareness Completed"
An example of the badge students receive after completing the First Amendment quiz.


In order to further our educational efforts, digital and print magazines were produced and distributed to target classes as part of encouraging students to earn the badge. These magazines showed students current real-world circumstances where the First Amendment had been under attack, including the Russian citizens having vital speech, expression and press rights stripped during the Ukrainian war.  

An image of people protesting with their fists in the air. The text reads "Freedom Today" "Say goodbye to your First freedoms. An inside look of how the First Amendment is dissolving in a world of social media and censorship."

The Taste of Freedom Barbeque

To garner even more awareness and participation, we hosted a Taste of Freedom Barbeque in the Free Speech Zone on April 20, 2022. Before entry, students scanned a QR code that launched a quiz. They had to obtain a perfect score to get a five freedoms stamp and their free barbeque. Also on display were banned books provided by WVU libraries. 

These posters helped spread the word about our event while also displaying American flag colors, synonymous with the campaign branding. Our team hung the flyers around campus on doors, walls, windows and bulletin boards. The event was also promoted on Instagram by Martin Hall Agency and team members shared the post on their Instagram stories as well. The QR code on the bottom of the graphic also takes you directly to our website, where students could see what the event was about and find more information on attacks against the First Amendment. 

Success and Results

At the onset of our campaign, we set a strategic objective of securing at least 150 certified protectors of the First Amendment.  As the following results illustrate, we exceeded initial expectations. 

  • 412 certification quiz responses 
  • 167 certified protectors
  • 120 event attendees
  • 146 social media impressions

“We no longer take for granted that young media professionals have a full understanding of the First Amendment – an essential foundational amendment for our democracy and our profession. A certificate that demonstrates 1a competency in media and civic contexts would be a welcome addition to cite on a resume.” 

Dana Coester, Professor, WVU Reed College of Media

Special thanks to the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University for providing financial support through a 1ForAll grant. 

Leave a Reply

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: