Teaching About Freedom of Speech

Introduction

Freedom of speech is the fundamental human right to express any opinions without government censorship or restraint. The First Amendment, which was adopted in 1791 as a part of the Bill of Rights, guarantees Americans this right. The freedom to speak freely continues to be a debated issue, especially in cases where the speech is offensive or hateful or the speech occurs in schools or on college campuses. By teaching students about freedom of speech, they will be able to better understand the First Amendment and its limitations. Students will also be able to understand how important freedom of speech is to maintaining a democracy because free speech allows citizens to hold the government and its officials accountable!

Resources

There are many resources available online for teaching about freedom of speech. For educators who are looking for their students to learn about some of the other rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, United 4 Social Change also has topic resources on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of the Press

Lesson Plans

  1. Academy 4SC: The video First Amendment – The Great Five! from Academy 4SC reviews the freedoms established by the First Amendment, including the freedom of religion, speech, and press along with the right to assembly and petition. Teachers have access to resources like worksheets, activity ideas, discussion questions, and more included in each topic’s lesson plan. 
  2. In the Classroom | The Free Speech Center: The Free Speech Center provides resources for teaching in the classroom on the First Amendment. There is an overview discussing why teaching the First Amendment is important and the teachable aspects of the First Amendment. Below, there are various primers, lesson plans, and school activities that will have students examine how their freedoms began, how far their individual rights extend, and how their rights operate in today’s world. Though this website has resources for all the First Amendment rights, there are a few that specifically focus on free speech that educators will find useful!
  3. Freedom of Speech? A Lesson on Understanding the Protections and Limits of the First Amendment: The New York Times provides a lesson on understanding the protections and limits of the First Amendment, specifically freedom of speech. This consists of a warm-up, two activities, and a whole class debrief and the closing activity. It encourages students to examine their own assumptions about what freedom of speech means and the current accepted interpretation of freedom of speech under the First Amendment. 
  4. Why is Freedom of Speech an Important Right? When, if Ever, Can It Be Limited?: This student opinion from the New York Times encourages students to discuss why freedom of speech is an important right and when, if ever, it can be limited. After reading an introduction to the topic, students will read the full text of the amendment and choose one of a few proposed articles about freedom of speech to focus on. Then, students will participate in a lengthy discussion guided by the questions provided about the importance of free speech and its limitations.
  5. Freedom of Speech and of the Press Lesson Plans for the Classroom: Free Speech Week has compiled a list of lesson plans on freedom of speech and of the press for elementary/middle school and high school classrooms. Educators looking to teach students about these two freedoms in the same lesson should check it out!
  6. Freedom of Speech – Finding the Limits: Annenberg Classroom has put together a lesson plan based on the video “A Conversation on the Constitution: Freedom of Speech.” This lesson will help students learn about the challenge of defining and protecting free speech along with the principles that come from Supreme Court decisions and case law that are applied to define the limits for us today.
  7. Respecting Freedom of Speech: The National Constitution Center offers a lesson educators can download from the Bill of Rights Institute on respecting freedom of speech. In the lesson, students will consider the point where respect and freedom of expression intersect and their role in maintaining a free society.
  8. The Dilemma of Protecting Free Speech: PBS NewsHour provides a lesson plan on the dilemma of protecting free speech. In the lesson, students will examine different examples of offensive expressions of free speech and evaluate whether free expression protections should be upheld when the expression is offensive. Then, students will conduct a case study of their own and apply First Amendment protections to cases where the exercise of free speech was offensive to others!
  9. The Bill of Rights and Free Speech: The Bill of Rights Institute offers two lessons on free speech. One lesson focuses on how free speech has been both limited and expanded and another examines why free speech is essential to self-government.
  10. Human Rights Watch – Free Speech: The Human Rights Watch (HRW) offers a variety of resources on free speech, including news, reports, and videos. For educators who want their students to be up to date on the current state of free speech around the world, this website will be very helpful!

Articles

  1. Teaching Children About Freedom of Speech: Forbes has published an article on teaching children about freedom of speech which explains how there is no time like the present to begin teaching young children about the importance of freedom of speech. The author asserts that if children do not learn the basic values of freedom and expression then they will grow into adults who stay silent or are intolerant of others’ views and the Republics’ future will be uncertain. Ideally, teaching children about freedom of speech will inspire them to become active members of society who bring about positive change.
  2. The Ongoing Challenge to Define Free Speech: The American Bar Association (ABA) has published an article discussing the ongoing challenge to define free speech. The article examines the debate of whether there is a free speech breaking point, the contemporary issue of freedom of speech in flux, the controversy of the role and credibility of the news media, and some current issues in our society that raise interesting free speech questions. Educators who want their students to learn about the limits of freedom of speech in American society with relevant examples should check it out!
  3. Covid-19 Triggers Wave of Free Speech Abuse: Human Rights Watch offers an article explaining how Covid-19 has triggered a wave of free speech abuse in many nations across the globe. In this article, HRW discusses how governments have violated citizens’ exercise of free speech and peaceful assembly, examines the specific global trends that have been identified, talks about violence against journalists, peaceful protestors, opposition activists, and lawyers, and more!
  4. The Great Free-Speech Reversal: This article from the Atlantic discusses how liberals once believed that private corporations have too much power over the flow of ideas and information in today’s societies, but now conservatives are worried about the threat to free speech. The author discusses the free-speech reversal and the power of private companies, ultimately coming to the conclusion that conservatives and liberals alike should be worried about the fact that the speech-regulating decisions by Big-Tech companies do not violate the First Amendment as it is currently interpreted.
  5. Times Topic – Freedom of Speech and Expression: The New York Times has put together an extensive collection of articles on freedom of speech and expression. Students should take a look through these articles and find a topic that interests them. Topics include Facebook planning to end their hands-off approach to politicians’ posts, short-lived censorship hinting at a deeper standoff in Hong Kong, Twitter calling on Indian government to respect free speech, and more!

Informational Sites

  1. HISTORY – Freedom of Speech: History.com provides an informational article explaining freedom of speech that discusses the First Amendment, flag burning, when speech isn’t protected, freedom of expression, and free speech in schools.
  2. Scholastic – Freedom of Speech: This brief article from Scholastic covers several topics related to freedom of speech: the history of freedom of speech, free speech in the United States, the “clear and present danger” doctrine, the “bad tendency” doctrine, society’s interests, preferred freedoms and the absolute approach, global status of freedom of speech, free speech and the internet. 
  3. Interpretation – Freedom of Speech and the Press: The National Constitution Center offers three different resources that focus on freedom of speech. The first article discusses the common interpretation of freedom of speech and the press. The next article explains the three issues involving the freedom of speech that are most pressing for the future, and the last talks about the frontiers for free speech.
  4. ACLU – Free Speech: The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) provides a variety of resources on free speech, including news, press releases, court cases, videos, features, reports, and more. ACLU also offers information on current issues in free speech, such as internet speech, student speech and privacy, rights of protesters, etc.
  5. What Does Free Speech Mean?: The United States Courts provides a resource that breaks down the meaning of free speech. Specifically, it explains the rights that freedom of speech does and does not include. In addition, there is a link to First Amendment activities in which students will apply landmark Supreme Court cases to contemporary scenarios related to the five pillars of the First Amendment and our rights to freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition.

Conclusion

Teaching about freedom of speech is very important because it gives people the right to tell their own stories without fear of repercussions. While teaching this topic, it is important that educators remind students of the importance of respecting the opinions of others, even if they differ from our own. We may not agree with what others have to say, but we should be tolerant of their ideas (as long as they do not violate any human rights).

Additional Resources

  1. Free Speech vs. Hate Speech: npr offers a podcast in which Sam Sanders discusses free speech vs. hate speech with former ACLU President Nadine Strossen.
  2. Free Expression on Social Media – What Can and Can’t You Say in the Town Squares of the Internet?: The Freedom Forum Institute has put together a resource focusing on free expression on social media, specifically explaining what you can and can’t say on social media. The censorship policies of various social media platforms in responding to various types of speech are compared to one another and to the First Amendment’s protections!
  3. Freedom of Speech – Which Country Has the Most: The World Economic Forum offers a brief informational article explaining which countries are the most and least tolerant with freedom of speech. 

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