Skip to Main Content

Why is Free Speech Essential to Self-Government?

90 min


  • Students will explain the reasons why free speech is essential to self-government and promotes a peaceful and stable society.
  • Students will articulate the importance/meaning of the First Amendment.
  • Students will understand the distinctions between protected and unprotected speech.
  • Students will evaluate the ways free speech is important in their own lives.
  • Students will appreciate the First Amendment’s protection of free speech.

  1. Have students read Handout A: Background Essay—Why is Free Speech Essential to Self- Government?
  2. After reading, students should answer the questions at the end of Handout A.

  1. Have students briefly share ways they express their opinions regarding issues in your school, or political issues of the state/country. As students share, reinforce the concept that while the First Amendment protects a variety of speech, it is political speech (or speech about candidates, laws, legal issues, and other political matters) that warrants the most protection.

Activity I – 45 minutes

  1. Divide students into pairs. Once paired, explain to students that they are acting as a small public relations firm, circa 1791, but with modern technology at their disposal, if available. They have been hired by James Madison to “sell” his proposed amendment to protect speech to both Congress and the states, so that it may be ratified.
  2. Distribute Handout B: Speech Poster (if no computer/smartphone access; see below for online/smartphone options in lieu of using Handout A).
    1. Instruct students to create a motivational poster that sells the amendment. They should first brainstorm good graphical and catch-phrase options that capture the essence of the First Amendment, its intent, or its importance. See the Answer Key for an example. If using the following technology-based options, instruct students on the way you wish for them to be able to share their poster (see sharing options below).
    2. Online option (if classroom has computers with internet access and printing/projection.) Students can print, email, or share their poster via Facebook/Twitter from the website, and can utilize Google Images to find graphics they wish to incorporate into their poster.
    3. Smartphone options (all are free apps that students can very quickly install and use). Students can email or share their poster via Facebook/Twitter from the app. Students can use their smartphone’s browser to find images they wish to use via Google Images, saving a particular image to their phone, and incorporating it into their poster via the app.
      1. iPhone: iMotivate (via App Store)
      2. Android: Motivator Maker (via Google Play)
      3. BlackBerry: Motivational Generator (via BlackBerry App World)
  3. Have a variety of student pairs share their motivational poster with the class. In sharing, they should briefly explain why they chose the graphic and motivational phrase they used in their poster, and what it illustrates about the importance of the First Amendment, if not obvious. Sharing options if using technology in lieu of Handout B:
    1. If using an online option, have students print their poster (easiest/quickest) and email it to you to project for them, or have them share it to Facebook/Twitter, letting them log in and project from their account if your school’s web filters allow.
    2. If using smartphones, have students either email their poster to you from the app they’re using and project it for them (easiest/quickest), or have them share it to Facebook/Twitter, letting them log in and project from their account if your school’s web filters allow.

Activity II – 20 minutes

  1. Designate—either verbally or with small signs—one wall of your classroom as YES/ PROTECTED, the opposite wall as NO/NOT PROTECTED, and the space in the middle of the two walls as NOT SURE.
  2. Explain to students that you will read a series of speech scenarios (do not yet give students Handout C; you will do so at the end of the group activity). After each scenario is entirely read, students will move to the wall indicating whether they believe the speech in the scenario is PROTECTED or NOT PROTECTED by the First Amendment.
    1. Students who are not sure of a particular scenario can move to the middle. Explain to students that once they have chosen a position, they will have 30 seconds to confer with the other students at their position and decide WHY the speech is protected or not (all three positions, if applicable, will need to do this). Tell them that you will call on a student at each station to speak for the group and share the justification for their position.
  3. If possible, start the entire class in the middle (NOT SURE) position. Read Scenario 1 of Handout C: Speech Scenarios aloud. Let students move to their chosen position. After they’ve settled, give them 30 seconds to confer and formulate their justification. When the 30 seconds are up, ask students in the middle, if applicable, for their justification; then do the same for the INCORRECT side, if applicable (consult the Answer Key for correct answers); finally, ask the CORRECT side for their justification. Discuss the scenario as a group and clarify any questions/ issues. When discussion/clarification for Scenario 1 has ended, announce the correct answer but not the rationale (they will do this individually in E, below).
    1. Continue procedure for Scenarios 2-6.
  4. When all 6 Scenarios have been completed, have students return to their desks and distribute Handout C: Speech Scenarios to students. Have them complete Handout C.

  1. Wrap up by discussing with the class the importance of the First Amendment, and how it encourages a free society. Ask students:
    1. Respond to the following statement: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (Attributed to French Philosopher Voltaire, 1694-1778.) Is the defense of free speech a duty of citizenship? In what ways do you defend it, both for yourself and on behalf of others?
    2. What might a variety of aspects of society look like if speech were not protected? (Consider art/movies/music, etc.)
      1. Suggested responses: Students are likely to say that defending free speech is a duty of all citizens. Some students may give examples of how they’ve defended speech in both exercising it themselves and in standing up on behalf of others who speak their minds (in class, other contexts, etc). Others may not have concrete examples to share, but may express the importance of protecting it. Regarding other aspects of society, students may suggest that the number or quality of movies or song lyrics may dwindle without freedom of speech. Students may say that the government would likely censor many of the things we see and hear without speech protection.

  1. Have students use a newspaper or internet resources to find three examples of individuals or groups exercising their right to free speech. Have them write a paragraph explaining each person or group’s message and the way their exercise of free expression enables them to
    persuade others of their cause.
  2. Have students interview a family member, teacher or friend and report on their attitudes regarding the First Amendment’s protection of speech. Questions to consider asking: How important is the right of free speech to you? In what ways have you spoken your mind? Do you believe the First Amendment provides too much protection for speech, not enough, or is just right? Why?
  3. Give students the following quote from the mayor of New York regarding anti-Vietnam War protests at Columbia University in 1969:
    1. “We cannot rest content with the charge from Washington that this peaceful protest is unpatriotic…The fact is that this dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”
    2. Have students write a brief essay in reaction to the quote. Questions to consider: Do you agree with the mayor when he says that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism”? Why or why not? Why is it a citizen’s right, even a duty, to question or criticize the government? What examples of dissent do you see in society today?
  4. Have students create a theme-based collage, either on posterboard or electronically, illustrating a variety of images of individuals or groups “speaking.” The theme of their collage should focus on one of the two topics of the lesson they just completed: importance and intent of the First Amendment; protected vs. unprotected speech. (This is essentially an expansion/extension of Activity I; they should incorporate the motivational poster they made into their collage.)

Student Handouts

Next Lesson

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