Can't I Say That?
of the most difficult but important questions the public faces is:
If freedom is not absolute, then what circumstances justify a limitation?
This lesson introduces standards that have been used in answering
this question. Students then evaluate several cases, applying the
standards and deciding specifically the beneficial or harmful consequences
of the particular speech in question. Finally, students determine
what values underlie the perceived need to limit speech, uncovering
and discussing conflicts between freedom of speech and other values.
in students the habit of visiting freedomforum.org.
They will find breaking news relating to speech issues and access
to the archives of news articles and commentary.
of speech is not absolute.
and the legal system recognize limits on the freedom of speech.
arise in which freedom of speech conflicts with other values.
to this curriculum’s First Principles.
The First Principles document was developed to explain in practical,
everyday terms just what the First Amendment means.
the explanations to the principles listed below. They have special
relevance to the activities in this lesson.
- The First
Amendment tells the government to keep its “hands off” our religion,
our ideas, our ability to express ourselves.
- “Who draws
the line, and how?” is a key question.
the benefits of freedom of speech in a democracy. Point out that
the First Amendment states “Congress shall make no law … abridging
the freedom of speech.” That sounds very straightforward and simple.
Ask the students to imagine this scene:
pep band is at a rival school across town for a game one evening.
Suddenly they find themselves surrounded by angry, taunting students
from the other school. The crowd shouts, “You stink!” “You’ll never
get home tonight alive!” “You’re gonna pay for being here!” Even
though no one has touched anyone, some fear for their lives. Does
the crowd have the constitutional right to yell at the pep band
student discussion as a springboard for the idea that society and
the courts have agreed upon limits to free speech. You may also
consider: Which is more at risk, student safety or free speech?
the example, the hecklers are causing a dangerous situation that
could easily get out of hand. At a minimum, they are causing great
distress to the surrounded students. Various laws might be applied
to the incident depending on the number of perpetrators, the presence
of weapons, the age of the victims and even where the incident takes
place. Legislatures, as well as courts and law-enforcement agencies,
influence how these incidents are handled. Teachers, check on the
policies and laws in your local jurisdictions.
of Freedom of Speech. Review
the tests that the Supreme Court has established to determine
whether speech may be limited. You may also want to discuss symbolic
speech with the students before giving students the case studies.
(Symbolic speech has been defined as the communication of an idea
through an action.)
Have students work in small groups to complete the Limits of Freedom
of Speech Case Studies. Students may be given all the case studies
or only some of the studies. You may wish to download and print
them as cards in order to distribute individual cases to each
group. Use the tests on limits to freedom of speech as a way to
structure student debate over the cases. (The case studies can
also be completed individually online if you prefer to do this
as homework, or each group could focus on a selected case.)
The case studies:
Case study 1Permits
Case study 2Burning
a selective service registration certificate
Case study 3Gathering
petitions in a shopping mall
Case study 4Obscene
or indecent phone calls
Case study 5Distribution
of anonymous political flyers
Case study 6Third-party
candidate inclusion in televised debates
Case study 7Student
speech at school assemblies
students have finished, have them take turns explaining what they
decided in each case and why. Check which groups or individual
students agreed and which disagreed. When disagreements arise,
refer to the tests, discussing (1) the potential for the speech
to result in a harmful consequence, 2) the probability that this
might occur, and 3) how to resolve conflicting values.
this introduction to the tests, have students study one of these
guidelines for limiting speech. Students will then write a personal
reaction paper on the topic: Do you agree or disagree with the
necessity for this limit on speech?
help students understand that freedom of speech is a contemporary
issue, have them scan newspapers or online news sites for approximately one week to
find articles regarding freedom-of-speech issues. Clip and glue
each article to a piece of paper. Beneath the article, students
should indicate the specific speech issue involved and whether or
not, in their opinion, the speech would be protected.
On the Web
Freedom of Expression – ACLU Position Paper
of Expression” gives an overview of pure and symbolic speech,
limits to speech and three reasons why freedom of expression is
essential to a free society.
Ask Sybil Liberty About Your Right to Free Expression
to students' basic questions.
Gregory v. Chicago (1969)
In this case, the Supreme Court took up the issue of the “heckler’s veto” – in other words, can the government limit speech out of concern that it will provoke a violent reaction by bystanders who witness the expression?
First Amendment Center, Freedom of Speech Overview
A comprehensive introduction to free speech, including analysis of debates over where limits should be placed.
History, Standard 8: Understands the institutions and practices
of government created during the Revolution and how these elements
were revised between 1787 and 1815 to create the foundation of the
American political system based on the U.S. Constitution and the
Bill of Rights.
Standard 8: Understands the central ideas of American constitutional
government and how this form of government has shaped the character
of American society.
Standard 18: Understands the role and importance of law in the American
constitutional system and issues regarding the judicial protection
of individual rights.
Standard 26: Understands issues regarding the proper scope and limits
of rights and the relationships among personal, political, and economic
Students prepare a speech on a speech-related topic, such as It
is/is not necessary to limit freedom of speech.
Students debate whether there should be limits on freedom of speech.
Use Limits of
Freedom of Speech to understand
the reasons speech is limited. Students may use any of the case
studies or add their own to substantiate their positions.
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