The First Amendment: Free Speech

The First Amendment: Free Speech Lesson Overview


Student Handout (download)


Overview Students will be asked to critically think about what the right to free speech means and why we have limitations to free speech. Students will examine several U.S. Supreme Court cases to explore the benefits and limits of free speech.

Session Objectives

Students will be able to:

  • Identify benefits of freedom of speech and identify limits to freedom of speech.
  • Define the term libel and how it applies to the First Amendment.

Materials needed:

  • Copy of Free Speech Student Handout 1
  • Copy of Free Speech Student Handout 2: Court Case Decisions

Warm-up Introduction (5 minutes)

Strategy: Walk the Line

This strategy can be used as an introduction to a topic to gage student opinions and spark interest for what will be covered during the session.

Procedure: Ask students to stand at the front of the room in a single horizontal line, all facing forward.  Explain to students that they will be presented with several statements. If they agree with the statement they should step forward. If they disagree they should step back. After each statement a mentor or facilitator should have all students get back in line.

Read the following statements

The right to free speech protected in the First Amendment means:

  • You have the right to say whatever you want without consequence.
  • You have the right to write, print, and publish whatever you want without consequence.

After students have made their decisions on each question ask:

  • Why or why not?

Small Group Activity: Learning the limits to free speech (30 minutes)

  • Students break into smaller groups to review three Supreme Court cases and to  learn about the limits to free speech. Student Handout 1
  • Review the definition of libel with students before reading the court cases.
  • Ask students the following questions after each of the court cases.
  • After each court case small groups should share their discussion answers with the larger group.

Case 1 Discussion Questions:

Does the police commissioner have a valid libel case against the New York Times? Why or why not?

What would be the difference between you taking space in a magazine to say derogatory things about a classmate or neighbor and criticizing the mayor of a city for neglecting his duties?

When the police commissioner in this case assumed office did he relinquish his rights to some degree?

Is it necessary to prove that every statement in a signed editorial or ad be true before a paper prints it? What would be the effect of such a policy on freedom of the press?

What are the advantages of a totally free press? What are the disadvantages?

Case 2 Discussion Questions

Was the burning of the flag a form of expression? Or was burning the flag an action which the state had a right to regulate? What is the distinction between expression and action?

What values are protected by the law against defiling the flag? What values are asserted by the act of burning the flag as a political protest? Which set of values should win in this case?

Case 3 Discussion Questions

Why would a school have the right to censor students?

How does this limit students’ free speech?

Do you think this is fair?

Possible Questions for Further Discussion

  • Do you think that schools should have the right to censor what students say or wear in schools? Why or why not?
  • When should schools limit free speech?
  • Do you think it is harder to prove that someone is libel in the age of so many forms of digital communication like the internet and Twitter? Why or Why not?

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