Does free speech have limitations?

Free Speech Sign-

Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

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.

Today’s post will focus on the exercise of free speech. Does the free speech clause cover any type of speech one feels at liberty to share publicly? What are the limitations to free speech? In the times that we live in it seems that the bounds of free speech are constantly being tested. Many white supremacist and other hate groups are creating propaganda, websites and giving speeches that disparage racial minorities; but they are often protected by the constitution. What should be the limits on freedom of speech? On the one hand, it is a great privilege to be able to express one’s opinion on any political or social issue without fear of repercussions (I.e. Being jailed, tortured or killed). True freedom of expression is one of the great fundamental rights people of the United States enjoy that those in many other countries do not. Indeed, our freedom of speech is one of the factors that make us not a totalitarian dictatorship. But on the other hand, that free speech should not be used as a license to harm others or incite violence. Can recent acts of violence perpetrated by hate groups in public spaces be somehow traced to the free flow of hate speech and political rhetoric in the public arena?

On Hate Speech
As it stands, hate speech is protected under the US Constitution. Currently, the United States “does not have hate speech laws, since American courts have repeatedly ruled that laws criminalizing hate speech violate the guarantee to freedom of speech contained in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” In other words, legally a person cannot lose their rights, livelihood or their life at the hands of the government because of something they say. Although, these things have happened to people throughout American history unofficially, officially it is supposed to be illegal. Yes, in the United States, political assassinations have taken place. That is, people who know or say too much or political opponents have been black balled or imprisoned by the hands of local, state and the federal government. Here is a partial list of assassinated American politicians. Think of all of the individuals during the Civil Rights movement who were killed because they spoke out or took a stand. Here is a list of Civil Rights martyrs compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Many domestic terrorist groups in the United States such as the KKK have long been protected by free speech rights. Having said that, the Supreme Court puts forth instances where free speech has limitations.

United States Free Speech Exceptions
There are certain categories of speech that are not protected by the First Amendment. Due to various precedents set forth by the Supreme Court and their interpretation of the First Amendment, the Court has articulated instances where there are limitations on free speech.

“Categories of speech that are given lesser or no protection by the First Amendment (and therefore may be restricted) include obscenity, fraud, child pornography, speech integral to illegal conduct, speech that incites imminent lawless action, speech that violates intellectual property law, true threats, and commercial speech such as advertising. Along with communicative restrictions, less protection is afforded for uninhibited speech when the government acts as subsidizer or speaker, is an employer, controls education, or regulates the mail, airwaves, legal bar, military, prisons, and immigration.”

As our country becomes more and more divided, a lot of the ideological battles play out in public spaces such as k-12 schools, college campuses, on television and movies, and in Washington. But in recent times, debates and public expression has been taking place on websites and on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Snap chat, Instagram and Pinterest. Much of the social media freedom of expression and debate is promising as it gives people a voice who may not have otherwise had one. But on the other hand, there seems to be a troubling rise of speech that advocates violence and hate. These factors cause Americans to think deeper about what type of speech is protected and what is not.  

Resources/Lesson Plans
Freedom of Speech and of the Press Lesson Plans for the Classroom
Freedom of Speech? A Lesson on Understanding the Protections and Limits of the First Amendment Image
The dilemma of protecting free speech – Lesson Plan
You Can’t Say That in School- Lesson Plan
Respecting Freedom of Speech

Why Is Freedom of Speech an Important Right? When, if Ever, Can It Be Limited?
United States Free Speech Exceptions
Hate Speech
Freedom of Expression
Your Right to Free Expression
The Ongoing Challenge to Define Free Speech
Free Speech and Its Present Crisis
Hate Speech and Hate Crime

Discussion Questions
What are the benefits of free speech in a democracy?
Should there be any curb on free speech?
Are there dangers to calling something hate speech?
How does one determine what is classified as hate speech?
Can the notion of hate speech be used as a political weapon?

Questions for Educators
How might you generate positive and meaningful discussions in your classroom about free speech?
What might be challenges to a free speech discussion in your classroom?   


  1. Freedom of speech means many different things to many different people, there is no true set law saying that you can or cannot say certain things because i can say anything i wanted to when im by myself where no one else can hear and i can get away with whatever it was that was said. Now that being said if i decided to speak my opinion to others and put it out there that i said it, would be protected under the first amendment depending on the severity of what was said. How things are said and perceived may vary depending on what it was, freedom of speech does not give one the right to go around yelling there’s a bomb when there really isnt, its being able to express what your beliefs are whether it be religious, political or opinions. There are no limitations on what can be said about about ones beliefs and there should be no change to that even if it is a racial slur against someone else (dont get me wrong im not for it, just an example) but you cant just stop people from speaking their thoughts and change how they were raised because people are raised to hate others for their religion or skin color, so to them they believe it is right and to other who wasnt raised like that it wouldnt be right, which again its their right to say it because freedom of speech allows personal opinions. So there are no limitations on what can or cannot be said as long as its not putting anyone or anything in immediate danger or making threats.

  2. I agree that freedom of speech is an important right when it comes to U.S Citizens however, when freedom of speech begins to cross into hate speech this is when problems arise. I feel that hate speech needs to be addressed although not too much can be done about it without hindering our right of freedom of speech. We can moderate and put laws on hate speech like the laws on child pornography, obscenity, and true threats etc. There is always a “gray area” on these restrictions, leaving the interpretation open for each individual. For example, obscenity has different meanings to different people; is it curse words, slander, or discrimmination? It is open to interpretation on all sides.

  3. People definitely take their freedom of speech and stretch it to the absolute limits. When they are using their freedom of speech to discriminate against groups of people that is not okay. However, I think the solution to stopping hate speech is very tricky. While I do not agree with people who use it, I am not sure if not having it protected by the first amendment is the way to go. While people who use hate speech may not be punished legally, they still face consequences. If they post hate speech online, or someone has proof of them spewing it, they may lose the job they have or may not get a job that they apply for because that is not up to company standards. If others hear it or see it they may decide not to associate themselves with that person anymore. It is very difficult to change what is and what is not protected by the first amendment but I am certain people will still face some form of repercussions, as they should.

  4. Freedom of speech is highly controversial and debated for a reason and I think the laws themselves remain vague for the same reason. I think that to loose our freedom of speech and self-expression is one of the most feared infringements of freedoms in the United States and thus remains vague and debatable (Save the mostly universal agreements and precedents you mentioned like obscenity, fraud, child pornography, speech integral to illegal conduct, speech that incites imminent lawless action etc.). As far as my own opinion on the matter, mostly in reference to freedom of speech on social media, we must understand we are given freedom of speech, not freedom of consequence. What you say online can be met with retaliation, what your neighbor overhears can lead to them never speaking to you again, none of these things infringe on your freedom of speech, you can have freedom of speech, but so do those around you and I think that distinction if often forgotten, especially online. As for hate speech, I think it’s just so hard to draw a line, as privileged as that may sound, do I think the police should protect KKK rallies? Absolutely not, under any circumstance, as again you can say what you want, but you can and often should also be met with the consequence of it. And obviously the KKK is an extreme example that I think most if not all people would be okay with getting shut down, I think it’s when things get less extreme feelings get more hazy and that fear of losing your own freedoms begin to kick in and that slope effect comes to mind. I remember hearing a poem called Somewhere in America by Rhiannon McGavin, Belissa Escobedo and Zariya Allen and it said “there’s a child sitting at his mother’s computer, reading the homepage of the KKK’s website, and that’s open to the public, but that child will never read “To Kill A Mockingbird” for its use of the N Word” of course this is not true in all schools, as I read “To Kill A Mockingbird” but it definitely is true in some places and I think this is a great example of the delicate and confusing nature of freedom of speech in the U.S and to be honest I don’t have any kind of solution or clear cut answer, but I do think it is important that we continue to talk and have difficult conversations about it, so we never lose that freedom, but also do our best to make sure people feel safe in their own neighborhoods.

  5. While I am a big proponent of the freedom of speech, I do believe there are necessary limitations on it. Like mentioned above, situations like threats, child pornography, obscenity, etc.. I believe hate speech should be added to that list. We have seen many social media sites ban, block, or at the very least remove posts containing hate speech, as it excludes, offends, and at times can even infringe upon others rights. I think it is time for the government to take that same stance.

    • What then is hate speech? Something you don’t agree with? That makes you feel a certain way? That challenges your world view? The crux of what is and isn’t allowed under A1 is that you are entitled to say whatever it is you want to say as long as isn’t causing physical harm or denying liberty to someone else

  6. On the subject of Hate Speech, I beilieve it is difficult to define what exactly it is. What is considered hateful within the limits of free speech is almost entirely subjective and dependent upon what society deems it to be. The intentions behind words are what is important, and it is the acts that come from these intentions that we prosecute and punish. If speech itself is limited, those who are willing to act will still do so, and those who provide discource around subjects of hate speech will find themsleves silenced. Context means everything in free speech, and social media has eliminated this aspect and reduced to bite-sized chunks of information that can be altered massly distributed. Hate speech and free speech is a paradox that might not have a legislative solution, but the people can limit its danger through discourse.

  7. The freedom of speech has always been something I have known to cause debate in the classrooms I have been in. On one hand it allows for all people to speak and have a voice when it matters, but on the other hand, it can incite violence or hatred. There really is no clear way of distinguishing what speech to limit to doesn’t relinquish someone’s liberty. Laws need to be black and white. There needs to be right and wrong, because grey areas lead to interpretation that maybe unconstitutional or may limit personal liberty.

    Is social media really limited to following free speech laws and the First Amendment? Many are publicly available platforms, but they are owned by private companies, and users must agree to their terms of service?

  8. I agree that this is a fundamental problem facing our country, especially in a time when politics and social issues have become so divisive. But I have always taken that stance that the government should continue to protect every citizens freedom to say what they want, because that is their constitutional right. However, the First Amendment is supposed to protect your freedom of speech from the government, not your fellow citizens. And so while I do not believe it is the place of the government to prosecute others for what they say I believe it is our responsibility as fellow citizens to negate and prevent hate speech.

  9. Last semester I wrote al paper on Hate Groups, and the accessories they have that aid them today to still thrive, in a overall progressive age. Social media platforms were one of the main focuses of my paper, exploring how the posts by individuals who subscribe to these hateful ideas are protected. The First Amendment is essential to preserving our rights as Americans, but at what cost? There have been many cries for the founder of Twitter to intervene in instances of hate on the website, and little effort has been done, which has lead to terrible publicity for the website and the founder, Jack Dorsey. I feel as if something should be done to curve hate speech, but it is a very thin line to tread between infringing on the First Amendment and ensuring domestic tranquility.

  10. Free speech is a tricky right, how far can free speech go before it crosses into the realm of endangering someone else’s rights. Dose hate speech cross the line of threatening someone else rights, or dose threatening someone else well being cross the line? Social Media becoming the primary form of political discussion has created a larger presents of hate speech. Online platforms have made it easier for individuals to say negative things that they would not say in real life, this is evident in the spread of online hate speech and cyber bullying.

    • Unless you incite panic with your free speech you are protected under the first amendment. It’s not tricky or thorny or anything else legally speaking . Truth or lie or opinion or feelings your right to say what ever is protected under the first amendment of the constitution of the United states of America. The greatest document created by man since the magna carta

    • Rights are always in danger. In order to guarantee 100% people’s right forever govenrmet would also need to limitate our freedoms completely.

      How can we be in a demcoracy without freedom of speech? Freedom of speech is the basis for democracy, if you limit it you limit demcoracy itself. Freedom requires assuming risks. People in demcoratic countries seem to be scared of everything now, willing to surrender their rights just to feel safe from an imaginary bogeyman.

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