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. Whether good or bad, words are powerful; words are inerrantly designed to hold authority. Biblically, The Word (and words as a whole) are compared to a sword, and interestingly, that is the only weapon of metaphorical offense used in the Bible. Who can fight without their weapon? The subject of what should and shouldn’t be protected/ acceptable regarding freedom of speech in the first amendment brings upon lots of ambivalence in me. While it does hurt me to see people be afflicted or harmed under the arm of hate speech, I do think that the good outweighs the bad. I can’t imagine living in a country with tighter reigns held on speech alone. Some of the most progressive moments in American history were bred under the rights to freedom of speech. Personally, I strive to use my voice to be constructive in any way I can, and while I wish my fellow citizens would make that same choice, that is almost inevitably impossible. I agree with the statement made in the article about America being set-apart and different than other governmental systems because of these rights and how at the same time people abuse this right to promote violence. This article definitely brought up some new ideas I haven’t thought about and I would be interested in learning more about how directly words are related to points of action.

  2. Your article brings up some good points. I have many thoughts and opinions on this topic, like: Is there even really free speech anymore? Everything you say is put under a microscope and criticized, and some people take things the wrong way. I am heavily addicted to the show 13 Reasons Why, and in this show a group of girls that were raped, storm onto the football field during a football game (in which one of the rapists were playing in) to make it a topic that the whole school needed to talk about. They got carried off the field by police. What. In. The. Heck. Sometimes I just think about how I believe that the freedom of speech and expression is so heavily limited and watched that you can’t ever say the correct thing, even if it’s your opinion.

  3. I find it concerning that such an important amendment such as the first can be perceived in various ways. After reading the same wording of the amendment, two individuals might show two completely different views. I believe that is why hate speech even exists today. I personally, cannot believe that an individual would find it appropriate to harass other individuals by threating their life and maybe even their family. I wonder if the founding fathers intentionally made this amendment so vague? The founding fathers were not saints. Some were notorious for their negative views and attitudes regarding people of other races.
    As future educators I believe it is important to understand that we cannot contribute to hate speech. The stopping of hate speech starts in our classroom. We should teach students to realize that even though we may disagree with someone, we should be respectful of their views. Children are the future and by teaching them to respect each other and their beliefs we are helping to minimize hate speech as a whole.

  4. Freedom of speech is something that people can easily abuse at times. We often hear first and second hand about racist and sexist jokes/comments that can offend and/or threaten a person. I believe that sometimes it is our society that makes comments acceptable, however that does not make them right. Personally, I whole heartedly agree with the article that free speech is a fundamental issue that continues throughout the country.

  5. Free speech is being tested almost on a daily basis now for anything you say. Freedom of speech should not include threatening someone in any way, however having your own opinions should be not be shunned. With that being said, you must be wary of what you say and where. I do believe employers have a right to hold what you say against you especially if it is out in the happen on social media. I would not say it is necessarily limiting freedom of speech, but I see it more as holding the people in these higher positions to be more responsible and held more accountable with what they may say. Now these are in more of terms of hateful, abusive or threatening speech. If it is something as simply stating how you think on social media platforms I see no wrong in that.

  6. I believe we all have a right to free speech. I also believe there’s an excessive amount of people who make racist, misogynistic, and sexist comments and use the first amendment as an excuse to share such hateful statements. While it is their right, I don’t believe that is /is/ right. As a country, we are lucky to have such freedom to say whatever we want without fear, but we don’t put it to good use half of the time. I believe our “freedom” of speech should be exercised, but shouldn’t infringe on any other persons thoughts/beliefs/opinion

  7. Free speech is a very important part of democracy. How could people vote and have a say in their government if they are not free to express their opinions and learn about the opinions of others. Without free speech, the government would have full control over what information is aired and published making it impossible for citizens to get an unbiased look at what’s going on politically. However, some speech can create panic and make people fear for their lives. Take the classic example of yelling fire in a crowded movie theater for example. Speech must be limited on some level or people can cause panic and fear that could impede the safety of others.

    Hate speech is defined by Google as “abusive or threatening speech or writing that expresses prejudice against a particular group, especially on the basis of race, religion, or sexual orientation”. Hate speech can absolutely cause panic and make people feel unsafe but, it can also absolutely be used as a political weapon. Some people may label anything they disagree with politically as “hate speech”. Lawmakers and enforcers must decide very carefully what is hate speech and what isn’t. People may stretch and abuse the term, or it may be used to help maintain the peace and safety of others, it can be looked at in a case by case manner.

    Overall, I believe that freedom of speech is very important to democracy, but should have some limitations to ensure safety and prevent panic.

  8. Freedom of speech is something America was built on and something many citizens hold with pride. The article brought up good points in how we are supposed to have the right to say what we want, but sometimes that amendment seems to use favoritism. The article mentioned how people have been assassinated and some thrown in jail for not having the popular opinion, even though this is technically against the law. The government showing favoritism does not make freedom of speech equal. The article also brought up how people use a lot of hate speech on social media. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I think there is a way to show how you feel with being negative or aggressive.

  9. Personally, I generally believe that people should have a right to express their opinions with little to no repercussions up until their opinion infringes on the rights of others. The United States Supreme Court has tried many cases where people have claimed that they were just using their right to free speech whenever they were conducted whatever activity got them sent to court in the first place. Throughout the trying of these cases, the Supreme Court often used the clear and present danger test and later incitement to imminent lawless action (also called the Brandenburg test) to determine whether they remained in the rights given to them by the Constitution. Basically, these two tests indicate that someone has the right to say whatever they wish to say, until what they are saying indicates that they are clearly going to cause some sort of danger/harm or participate in a lawless action. I think that hate speech would fall under this category. Hate speech is often threatening others for something that they can not control (such as skin color or religious beliefs). Generally, these threats cross the line of being a lawless action- because they often involve threatening to assault or kill someone (both of which are illegal and therefore lawless). I don’t understand why people are still able to get away with hate speech. I understand people not wanting to have their Freedom of Speech limited, but I think it is necessary to combat the current state of affairs of our country, and even our world, where hate is causing a large number of unnecessary deaths.

    The First Amendment Encyclopedia, Middle Tennessee State University, 2009,

  10. I have always thought that you should have the right to free speech but that doesn’t mean you should use your right to bring people down. I believe in what the Bible says and it states that you shouldn’t use your words to bring people down, and hateful things shouldn’t come out of your mouth. Therefore, I think you should have your rights to freedom of speech except for the exceptions that were stated above in the article. Hate speech is sadly always going to exist. It is something that will never go away. However, as people, we can change what comes out of our mouthes and guard our tongue. We have the power as individuals to change what we say. We can bring happiness, positivity, joy, and light to the World.

    I believe that we should always be able to keep our right to freedom of speech. Though, we can be the generation that raises children to speak words of kindness and acceptance. We can teach our kids to stand up to the people who choose to spread hate. We can choose to raise children that will bring awareness to hateful words and how it harms people. We can raise children to be the change.

    But it needs to start with us. We need to be the change that the world so desperatley needs.

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