Research-paper requirements

Three weeks from now, at the beginning of class on Friday, Nov. 20, you will turn in your research paper, the most important assignment of the semester. You have chosen a First Amendment case. You have found at least three historical news clips and three reference sources, including books and law-journal articles. Now it’s time to put it all together.

Please follow these guidelines closely.


Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.


Let me get the mechanical requirements out of the way first. Your paper should be eight to 10 pages long, in 12-point Times or Times New Roman, double-spaced (or one-and-a-half), with standard margins. I want your paper stapled together. I do not want to receive any e-mail submissions, but am willing to make an exception if you are experiencing a genuine hardship.

Turning in your paper late is not an option.

As in all research papers, you can use direct quotes from either the cases or from secondary sources, as long as you put direct quotes in quotation marks and indicate the source. Failure to do this is plagiarism and is an automatic “F.”

Cases should be cited using standard legal citation following the case’s name — i.e., United States v. Moussaoui, 30 Media L. Rep. 1251 (2002), just as they are in the cases that you will read. Secondary sources such as books, newspaper or magazine articles, law-journal essays, and the like should be referenced in the usual manner. Information you have gleaned from your sources should be referenced whether you are quoting from it directly or not. I do not care how you handle references — footnotes, endnotes or references within the text are all fine. But you do need to use a clear, thorough and consistent method.

Pay close attention to spelling, grammar, syntax and typographical errors. You are not handing in a rough draft — you are handing in what is expected to be a finished, polished paper. If there are any misspelled proper names in your paper, then the highest grade you can receive is a B-plus. Please pay close attention to this — do not undermine all your hard work.



Thurgood Marshall

With that out of the way, let me get to the substantive part. Your paper will consist of a close reading and analysis of an important First Amendment case in which you will explain the judges’ reasoning, place the decision in a broader historical and cultural context and discuss what effect the decision has had on our understanding of freedom of expression.

You may approach this assignment any way you like. Some of you will want to write a unitary paper, pulling everything together into one seamless work. Some of you will want to divide it into parts. Either approach is fine. Here are the elements I expect every paper to contain:

  • Evidence that you have read the case you have chosen in full in the form of a description of the majority decision and any minority and concurring opinions that may have been filed. (Note: Those of you who are writing about the Pentagon Papers case, New York Times v. United States, do not necessarily have to tackle all nine opinions.)
  • A description of how the decision relied on precedents. For instance, I don’t think I’m giving anything away if I tell you that the Pentagon Papers decision relied in part on Near v. Minnesota. Find at least two relevant precedents in your decision, read the precedents, and explain how those precedents were used in your case.
  • An overview of how the case was seen at the time that it was being decided. This is why I asked you to find three historical news accounts.
  • An analysis in which you will write about the importance and the effect of the case from a broader historical perspective. This is where you will make use of your reference materials.
  • Your own thoughts, based on what you’ve learned about the law, as to whether your case got it right or if instead the court should have reached a different conclusion. I want your opinion, but I want it to be grounded in what you have learned about First Amendment cases. You should cite at least two relevant precedents in this section.

The three “nos” of reference materials


Sandra Day O'Connor

Three reference sources I definitely do not want to see in your paper are Wikipedia, any other encyclopedia or the Zelezny textbook.

Wikipedia is wonderful in many ways; it is often my first stop. The external links are invaluable. But Wikipedia, properly used, is a research tool, not a reference source.

Encyclopedias and Zelezny are out because your mission is to go deep. Even an excellent encyclopedia is little more than a starting point. It may tell you all you need to know if you’re looking for background for, say, a 600-word op-ed piece. But it’s inappropriate for a research paper.

Have fun

Easy to overlook when you’re under deadline pressure and when you’re trying to meet a series of requirements. But I do hope you’ll find that this assignment is enjoyable as well as challenging. I’m available to talk about it during office hours; by appointment or phone; and, always, by e-mail.