For Schools

High School Students
Teaching About Freedom of Speech on the Internet

Many libraries and schools have installed filters on their computers to restrict Internet access. This model lesson plan—which can be done by a lawyer or other resource person as well as the teacher—provides an opportunity for students to think about their free speech rights in the context of the Internet and apply various legal principles to fashion solutions for student Internet use.

This activity could extend over several days, so you may wish to have the resource person conduct one day’s activities—say the opening discussion of First Amendment principles or the final City Council role play—with the teacher conducting the others.


At the end of this lessons, students will be able to:

  • consider the scope of their right to free speech outside and inside schools;
  • apply free speech concepts to student use of the Internet;
  • deliberate whether and to what degree there should be limits on children’s Internet use in public libraries.

Materials Needed

Free Speech Handout
Legal Background Handout


Introductory Discussion
Start off with some questions

  • Do people have a right to free speech?
  • How do you know people have a right to free speech? (First Amendment)
  • What does the right to free speech mean? (Can you yell fire in a crowded theater?)
  • Why is the right to free speech so important?

Activity #1. Free Speech Background
Pass out the Free Speech Handout: Have students read and discuss examples in pairs or small groups, then discuss their opinions with the class as a whole.

Activity #2. Free Speech on the Internet
Raise the following questions with students:

  • Is communication the Internet a form of speech protected by the First Amendment? Why or why not?
  • How should public libraries deal with student or young person use of the Internet? Should filters be required for everyone, just people below a certain age, or no one?

    Briefly explain to students how some schools and libraries use filters on their computers to block access to certain types of material. Filtering software generally uses preselected keywords, Internet domains, or lists of web addresses to block access to certain kinds of web sites. A survey conducted in 1998 found that about 15% of all U.S. public libraries connected to the Internet were using filters on some of their terminals. Some libraries installed filters on Internet computers used only by children and labeled unfiltered terminals “adult only.”

    Do Internet filters work? According to a filter-evaluation project conducted by public librarians in 1997, keyword blocking may prevent access to significant amounts of valuable information that wouldn’t otherwise be restricted, such as that concerned with breast cancer and safe sex. Other methods of blocking are also not foolproof, but filters seem to work most of the time.

Group Work
Divide the class into six groups: five interest groups and the City Council. Hand each group a slip of paper describing the position of the group to which they belong:

  1. American Civil Liberties Union—opposed to using filters because it violates free speech rights.
  2. Netparenting Group—a group of parents supporting use of filters to protect children from harmful information.
  3. American Library Association—a group of librarians opposed to using filters in public libraries because this violates the commitment of libraries to promoting free speech.
  4. Freedom for Research Club—a group of high school students who oppose using filters on high school computers because this blocks access to important information for research.
  5. Parents Against Pornography—parents who support using filters to protect young children from exposure to pornography.
  6. City Council Members (at least 5 students)—elected by the community to make laws concerning community matters. They need to make a decision about how to handle student and young person use of the Internet in public libraries. Each member will form his/her position as he/she listens to representatives of the other groups

Have each group brainstorm the reasons for their position and several situations illustrating their positions.

Give each group a short description about their group’s position:

  1. American Civil Liberties Union—opposes Internet censorship because:
    • “Blocking software is notoriously clumsy and inevitably restricts access to valuable, protected speech;”
    • “Parents and teachers should provide young people with guidance about accessing the Internet;”
    • Filters in schools and libraries “prevent children and adults without home computers from realizing the full potential of information available on the Internet;”
  2. Netparenting Group—supports using filters because:
    • “Protecting our children online should be our #1 goal;”
    • “Adult sites are added to the web at an alarming rate;”
    • “Hate groups and cults have sites and no child should ever be exposed to these radical beliefs at such a young age;”
    • “When young children see bad words on the Net, they begin to think it’s okay;”
  3. American Library Association—opposes using filters in library computers because:
    • Internet communications “deserve the same level of Constitutional protection as books, magazines, newspapers, and speakers on a street corner soapbox;"
    • Courts support the “importance of enabling individuals to receive speech from the entire world and to speak to the entire world;”
    • "Libraries provide opportunities to many who would not otherwise have them;”
  4. Freedom for Research Club—opposes using filters because:
    • Filters prevent students from doing research on topics such as breast cancer and AIDS;
    • Many students do not have Internet access at home and school and library computers are the only way they can research;
  5. Parents Against Pornography—supports using filters because:
    • Restricting access to the Internet is the same as refusing to have Playboy and Hustler in schools and libraries;
    • Restricting access to the Internet is similar to placing limits on what can be shown on television;
    • It is parents’ responsibility to teach their children about sex, and children should not be exposed to pornography on the Internet;

Class Activity

  1. Hold a City Council reception. Prepare name tags for each council member and each representative of each group. Have students playing the representatives circulate to talk with the council members. Each representative of the interest groups should voice their feelings regarding filters and the reasons behind these feelings. (Encourage students to use their own brainstormed ideas and the short description.) They should try to convince the council members to vote in favor of their position. They should also ask the council members for a commitment. For each council member, provide a checklist listing the five groups, which the members will check off when after talking with the interest group representatives. For each interest group representative, provide a checklist listing each council member to check off after talking with the member. On the checklist, the interest group members can also whether they have the council member’s support for their position.

  2. Hold a brief City Council meeting in which members publicly discuss among themselves the issue of Internet access to young people. Depending on available time, representatives of the interest groups may make comments or statement. Council members conclude their deliberations by taking a vote.

  3. Ask students to step out of their roles and discuss their personal feelings regarding the use of filters. Ask students to give their observations and reactions to the City Council reception and vote. Discuss the difference between having filters in school computers and library computers. Take a vote of how many students would support using filters on all school computers, on some school computers, on all library computers, on some library computers. In this discussion, ask students how the various legal principles influenced their decisions.

This strategy was written by Richard L. Roe and Lorraine Bellard. Richard Roe is Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, where he directs the Street Law Clinic and the D.C. Family Literacy Program. Lorraine Bellard is a third year law student at Georgetown University Law Center, where she participated in the Street Law Clinic her second year of law school.

>>Teaching about Freedom of Speech on the Internet
>>Free Speech: Handout
>>Legal Background

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