Category – First Amendment Grade – 9-12 National Standards for Civics

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Respecting Freedom of Speech

Lesson provided courtesy of The Bill of Rights Institute.

Category – First Amendment

Grade – 9-12

National Standards for Civics
C. What is American political culture?

Recommended Time

Two 45-minute class periods or one 90-minute block class, with additional time as needed for extensions or research.

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?

Caution: The issues and examples integral to this lesson are controversial. Although the lesson provides guided questions and suggested answers, teachers are encouraged to use their discretion and review the material to determine its appropriateness for their students.

Note for History teachers: The following activity is supplemented with two 1,000-word essays that investigate historical events and figures faced with government restriction of political speech. Discussion questions are provided.

Paul Robeson: The Price, Power and Responsibility of Free Speech

--First Amendment application.

Students will be able to:

 write a one page response defining "respect"

 analyze the language of the First Amendment concerning
freedom of speech

 distinguish between government and private restrictions on freedom of speech

 distinguish between constitutional and societal limits on freedom of speech

 apply an understanding of "freedom of speech" and "respect" to various situations


Background/Homework [15 minutes]

Have students complete one of the following exercises for homework the night before the lesson.

Definition/Response. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines “respect” in a number of ways:

a relation or reference to a particular thing or situation

an act of giving particular attention

high or special regard

the quality or state of being esteemed

plural : expressions of respect or deference

You may want to point out that the history of the word "respect" goes back to the Latin respectus, literally, the act of looking back, and that to respect does not mean only "high or special regard" but also simply the act of paying attention to something. Ask students to write a one-page response where they attempt to define what "respect" means to them.

Have students reread the language of the First Amendment:

First Amendment
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Warm-Up [15 - 20 minutes]

Begin a discussion about respect and attempt to brainstorm a definition, listing class contributions on the board or overhead.

Suggested questions:

What is respect- how would you define it?

Where have you heard the use of the word respect? (respect your elders, pay your last respects, respect yourself, respect the environment)

How do we show people respect? (through our actions, words, behaviors: don’t say hurtful things- curses, slurs; being quiet when others are talking; good manners show respect for others; removing hats in buildings; wearing black to a funeral; being on time and prepared or class or work; shaking hands with the other team after a game; being truthful in our relationships- not cheating, lying)

To what other things do we show respect? (understanding the power of things we can’t control- animals, the ocean; concepts- justice, honor, bravery; rights, property or authority of others; traditions/societal conventions- family, marriage; achievements- graduation, honors, awards, actions)

Who are some of the people we respect as a culture? (students may mention some names like George Washington, Mother Theresa etc.; honorable people- people who do something brave, selfless; people who serve others- fireman, policemen)

If students contribute that they respect famous people like movie starts, athletes, you may want to ask, "Why do we respect these when there are so many who commit outside acts that we do not respect?"

If students say that our culture respects having material possessions we want or can do things we wish we could, you may want to ask, "Is this true respect?"

Why do we respect certain people? (for their actions or achievements, courage, opinion, etc.)

Why is showing respect important to our society? (helps to maintain civilization and our relationships with one another)

What happens when we fail to give others respect? (their feelings get hurt; we get into a confrontation; war; they show us disrespect)

Review the language of the First Amendment (see above). Suggested Questions:

According to the language of the First Amendment who or what is constitutionally prevented from limiting your right to speak?
--The government. "Congress shall make no law..."

Why do you think the Founders included freedom of speech in the First Amendment?

--The Founders were particularly concerned with preventing tyranny and believed that freedom of speech was necessary for a free, open, and civil society.

Is your freedom of speech absolute? Can you say whatever you want, whenever you want?

--No. The language of the First Amendment has been interpreted by the Supreme Court so that in certain specific circumstances the government is able to limit your right to freedom of speech because it infringes on the rights of others. With regard to non-governmental action, society and individuals limit your right to speak in various ways that you will explore in this lesson.

Revise the class definition of respect, if necessary.

In-Class Readings and Discussion: Current Events [30 minutes]

Distribute a copy of Handout 1 – Respect: Reading Selections

Have students read the situations individually, keeping in mind the following questions:

Does the speaker(s) have a right to speak?

Did the speaker(s) show respect, according to the class definition?

As a class, review each situation and discuss. Suggested questions and answers are given on Handout 2 – Respect: Reading Selections (Questions). Be sure to make the following distinctions in each case, as applicable:

Private versus government action

Right to speak versus right to protest

Right versus responsibility (respect)

Revise the class definition of respect as needed.

Wrap-Up Discussion [10 - 15 minutes]
Suggested questions:

Do you think that there should be any limit on your constitutional right to speak?

Do you think that the constitutional protections of your right to speak should extend to private entities?

What are the benefits to society if everyone respects the right to disagree?

At what point do you think that a person's expression shows disrespect -- rather than simply disagreement?

To what extent should an expectation of respect limit your freedom of speech?

Homework: Connect to Students
Students have read the First Amendment, and know that they have a constitutional right to free speech and free press. From their readings, they should have a better understanding that people may choose to temper their right to expression with discretion, weighing the consequences of their expression and the impact it may have on the rights of others.


Have students create a presentation or lesson for a hypothetical fifth grade class on the topic: First Amendment and Freedom of Expression. Have them explain how and why they show respect for others in order for the First Amendment freedoms to be effective in a free society. Require that the students write a paragraph or outline five key points. Suggested responses:

Respect other people's right to speak and they will respect your right to speak

Respect other people's right to speak so that there may be a dialogue and resolution of conflicts and problems

Respect other people as individuals, and they will be more apt to listen to your individual point of view

Respect others, or face the potential consequences of: people choosing not to associate with you, do business with you, take you seriously, hire you, or work for you

Have students revise the First Amendment and clarify the limits, if any, on freedom of speech.

Have students research Freedom of Speech cases decided by the Supreme Court and present their findings to the class.

For the in-class readings, divide students into groups and assign each group one of the scenarios. Have the students answer the discussion questions, then assign each student a role. Give the students time to prepare an argument for their point of view concerning free speech and its impact on economic and social factors related to the case.

Group 1: Ms. Heaphy

Roles: Ms. Heaphy, the hecklers, the University of California, the newspaper columnist, society

Group 2: Dr. Sommers

Roles: Dr. Sommers, the professor, the Department of Health and Human Services, CSAP employees, the columnist, society

Group 3: Mr. Turner

Roles: Mr. Turner, AOL Time Warner, Major League Baseball, any one of the groups Turner mentioned, society

Group 4: Mr. Rocker

Roles: Mr. Rocker, Major League Baseball, any one of the groups Rocker mentioned, baseball fans, society

Group 5: Ms. Roy

Roles: Ms. Roy, editors of Z magazine, readers of Z magazine, US government (or Administration), society

Extension: A Historical View – Government Restrictions on Political Speech
Have students read the historical narrative of Paul Robeson and answer the accompanying questions.

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