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How Has Speech Been Both Limited and Expanded, and How Does it Apply to You and Your School?

60 min


  • Students will understand the conditions under which government, including public schools, may restrict speech.
  • Students will evaluate whether certain actions should be protected by the First Amendment.
  • Students will understand Supreme Court applications of First Amendment protections regarding “expressive conduct.”
  • Students will critically analyze free speech issues concerning schools as well as the proper balance between First Amendment protections and legitimate educational/disciplinary concerns.
  • Students will appreciate the importance of the freedom of speech in preserving a free and open society.

  1. Have students read Handout A: Background Essay – How Has Speech Been Both Limited and Expanded, and How Does it Apply to You and Your School?
  2. After reading, students should answer the questions at the end of Handout A.

  1. Distribute Handout B: What Do I Believe About the Freedom of Expression?, and put students into pairs. Read the directions aloud, encouraging students to both briefly discuss and write a brief explanation for any particular statement(s) in which they feel they need to clarify or qualify their belief.
  2. After 5-7 minutes, or after all students have finished, direct students to return to their desks. Begin discussing each statement one-by-one. Elicit individual responses and thoughts, perhaps asking student pairs to explain their conversations on particular statements. Note both similarities and differences of opinion throughout the room.
  3. Close by asking students to share their answers to, and/or reconsider, the quotation posed in Question 5 of the Comprehension and Critical Thinking questions in Handout A.

  1. Put students into groups of four, and distribute Handout C: Student Code of Conduct to the members of each group. Explain to students that it is an excerpt from a real high school’s Student Code of Conduct booklet (you may find it useful to locate a similar excerpt from your own school’s code of conduct for later comparison/analysis/discussion).
    1. Have them complete the questions on Handout C, analyzing the code of conduct in light of the protections of the First Amendment.
  2. After 10 minutes, or after all students/groups have finished Handout B, bring the class together, keeping students in their groups. Discuss student answers to Question 4 of Handout C. If time allows, ask students if they were surprised by anything in the Student Code of Conduct.
  3. Distribute Handout D: Schools and the Marketplace of Ideas—4 Scenarios. Have groups read each scenario in order, discussing and answering the questions below each scenario. Students should use Handout C as they work through the scenarios, referencing both the Conduct Code and the First Amendment in their answers.
  4. After students have finished all scenarios, conduct a discussion with the whole class, keeping students in their groups. Begin discussing student answers to Scenario 1. After groups have discussed their arguments/opinions, read the answer to Question 3 of Scenario 1 from Answer Key: Handout C, summarizing how the Supreme Court either has ruled, or would be likely to rule, and the reasons why. Continue process for Scenarios 2-4.

Discuss the following questions:

  1. How does the First Amendment help protect a free society in which people can speak their minds?
  2. Do the freedoms of the First Amendment impose on people certain responsibilities? How so, or in what ways?

  1. Have students select one of the Student Speech Scenarios from Handout D, and extend their classroom analysis of it in a 2-3 paragraph response.
    1. Question for them to address in a one-paragraph response: Based on your in-class work with the scenario you chose, and the class discussion about it, do you think the student speech should have been protected by the First Amendment? In responding, give specific reasons why you believe the First Amendment does or does not apply.
    2. Pretend for a moment that you are the school principal. Would your opinion change? Why or why not? What if you were a concerned parent? A concerned classmate? In arguing a different perspective, be sure to give specific reasons that address the balance between the protections of the First Amendment and the need to maintain order and discipline.
  2. Have students choose an organization that, to get its message across, frequently employs either non-verbal, symbolic speech, or controversial/offensive methods. Examples might include PETA, Greenpeace, the NRA, Right to Life groups, the Westboro Baptist Church, and the 2011-2012 “Occupy” movement. Ask students to evaluate the group’s use of expressive activities. Questions to consider:
    1. How effective are their tactics in persuading others? Does it matter how effective they are?
    2. Is this what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes had in mind when he called for a “marketplace of ideas”? Why or why not?
  3. Have students keep a week-long journal or blog detailing speech and expression in your school. Students should note the variety of ways students express themselves in both verbal and non-verbal forms. They should also note the context of the expression (i.e. classroom expression, one-on-one conversations, hallway or other assembled expression, student government, school-sponsored activities, dress, etc.) and any restrictions on speech that they see or think might be occurring.
    1. After a week, students should review their journal and write a 2-3 paragraph summary assessing the state of the First Amendment in your school, incorporating examples from their journal (students should turn in the journal along with their essay). Pose the following question as the organizing principle of their journal and essay: Do you believe the First Amendment is alive and well, and being honored and protected, in our school?
  4. Display for the class a copy of your school’s Code of Conduct and, with your students, mark the sections which apply to students’ First Amendment rights. Possible questions to discuss:
    • How does the law or policy define bullying? Do you agree with the definition?
    • In what ways does the law or policy protect student speech? In what ways does it limit it?
    • Do you believe this law or policy upholds the protections and principles of the First Amendment? If so, why? If not, why not?

Student Handouts

Next Lesson

Why Does a Free Press Matter?