Free Speech Essentials

Do your students know what they’re free to say online? At school? On a public street corner? From censorship to cyberbullying, the First Amendment and the freedoms it protects are as hotly contested as ever. This EDCollection explores 16 free speech debates ranging from the founding of our nation to recent headlines to illustrate what free speech actually means, where it comes from, and how far it can go. Whether you’re a social studies teacher looking for a complete unit or an English teacher looking to spend a single class period on free expression, there’s something for everyone. Free registration required.

  • Resource Type: Lesson Plans, Modules (Teaching Unit), Primary Sources
  • Subject: Foundations of Democracy
  • Grades: 9, 10, 11, 12

Respecting Freedom of Speech

In the course of this lesson, students will consider the point where respect and freedom of expression intersect. For homework the night before, students are asked to review the language of the First Amendment, as well as examine their definition of respect by responding to a writing prompt. The next day, students are asked to consider five controversial instances of “free speech” and participate in a discussion that attempts to draw the distinction between: private versus government action regarding speech; rights of the speakers and rights of the listener; and right to free speech and responsibility to act or speak with respect. What role does freedom of expression play in maintaining a free and open society?

  • Resource Type: Lesson Plans
  • Subject: Rights and Responsibilities
  • Grades: 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12

First Amendment: Speech

When does the First Amendment allow the government to limit speech? Many Americans struggle with understanding the language and subsequent interpretation of the Constitution, especially when it comes to the rights encapsulated in the First Amendment. While many Americans can agree that speech should be protected, there are disagreements over when, where, and how speech should be limited or restricted. This lesson encourages students to examine their own assumptions and to deepen their understanding of current accepted interpretation of speech rights under the First Amendment, including when and where speech is protected and/or limited. It should reinforce the robustness of the First Amendment protections of speech.

  • Resource Type: Lesson Plans
  • Subject: Foundations of Democracy
  • Grades: 11, 12

The Campus Speaker: A Case Study in Free Speech

Use this classroom-ready lesson to examine free-expression issues surrounding a controversial speaker invited to appear at UC Berkeley. We provide questions to help guide your students on if and when offensive speech should be banned, and what are the competing groups and interests.

  • Resource Type: Lesson Plans, Modules (Teaching Unit)
  • Subject: Rights and Responsibilities
  • Grades: 10, 11, 12

A Conversation on Freedom of Speech

Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Anthony M. Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor and students discuss the First Amendment’s right to free speech, and in particular students’ free speech rights in the Supreme Court cases Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District and Morse v. Frederick. In the Tinker case, students wore black armbands to school in silent protest of the Vietnam War. In the Morse case, a student held up a sign that said “Bong HITS 4 Jesus” at a parade.

  • Resource Type: Closed Captions, Video
  • Subject: Foundations of Democracy
  • Grades: 8, 9, 10, 11, 12

Freedom of Speech: Finding the Limits

As part of the Bill of Rights, freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Constitution, but it is not defined by it. That task is left up to the people through a representative government that makes the laws and a judicial system that interprets and applies the laws to resolve disputes. In this lesson, based on the Annenberg Classroom video “A Conversation on the Constitution: Freedom of Speech,” students gain insight into the many challenges involved in defining and protecting free speech. They also learn about principles that come from Supreme Court decisions and case law that are applied to define the limits for us today.

  • Resource Type: Lesson Plans
  • Subject: Foundations of Democracy
  • Grades: 9, 10, 11, 12

Morse v. Frederick (2007)

Does the First Amendment allow public schools to prohibit students from displaying pro-drug messages during a school-supervised event? This case summary shows how the Supreme Court answered that question in 2007.

  • Resource Type: Research (Digests of Primary Sources)
  • Subject: Judicial Branch/Supreme Court
  • Grades: 9, 10, 11, 12

Believe It or Not?

This unit introduces students to the purpose and practice of media literacy. It includes pre- and post-visit activities designed to bracket the Believe It or Not? ED Class ( The activities also can be done independent of a visit to the Newseum.) Students will come to understand why not all information is trustworthy and how to differentiate the good from the bad. They practice using a set of tools – the consumer’s questions – to deconstruct and evaluate information sources.

  • Resource Type: Modules (Teaching Unit)
  • Subject: Media Literacy
  • Grades: 9, 10, 11, 12

The First Amendment: What’s Fair in a Free Country?

Young people have a profound sense of the importance of fairness. “It’s not fair” is often used as a one-size-fits-all argument when a child feels victimized. In situations where the child has an interest in protecting his or her actions, “It’s a free country!” is often the argument of choice. On the other hand, children are very sensitive about speech and policies they consider to have a negative effect on their well-being.

Balancing rights and responsibilities is difficult, even for the Supreme Court. This lesson demonstrates to students that doctrine of freedom of speech and its proper application is an ongoing process.

  • Resource Type: Essays, Lesson Plans, Modules (Teaching Unit), Research (Digests of Primary Sources)
  • Subject: Rights and Responsibilities
  • Grades: 3, 4, 5