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. Free speech in the United States is an interesting topic in that it was the main ideal that the U.S. was founded on yet the broad scope of the amendment leads to discussions of how free free speech really is. In an ideal world it would be great for hate speech to be excluded from free speech with all the other forms that were limited. Where the problem arises is the same as where the problem is with free speech in that hate speech is a broad idea. It’s defined as abusive or threatening speech or writing that expresses prejudice against a particular group. This is a very broad definition and is not suitable for legal use. After an official definition of hate speech is created for legal use then it will be easier to discuss the specifics of how to limit this form of speech.

  2. I believe that in this country we have lots of freedom. One of those freedoms is the freedom of speech. Today, this is taken advantage of by slandering people on social media, the news, etc. I believe that we all have the right to speak freely and that cant be taken away from us but we need to watch more carefully on what we say and how we say it.

  3. The very core of our nation was built on freedom, and from that, the freedom of speech. It is a powerful right that most Americans take for granted every day as they rant about current issues over social media or in public. However, just as the article says, there is a worrying amount of hateful speech seeming to rise above the rest which begs the question should there be limits? Like many subjects regarding freedom, there is no clear line in this matter, but I hardly believe putting limitations on American’s freedom is hardly the answer, as this would cause an even larger uproar. Instead, we as individuals need to make the conscious decision to tune out the negative, as the voices behind it all simply feed on the responses people give back out of anger. While this action may seem simple or small, it is in my best experience that I have learned that sometimes the biggest changes come from the smallest beginnings.

  4. Freedom of speech is one of the most fundamental rights for citizens in America, however the extent to which ones speech is free has its limitations. Things like obscenity, child pornography and other forms of speech have lessor or no protection under the law whereas hate speech does? Why is that? Hate speech has threatened and caused more harm to the citizens of America, than any other form of speech today and yet it is still one of the most protected forms of speech. That is truly baffling to me, I think one of the issues with putting limitations on hate speech would be trying to define it. There is no one definition for such a broad concept that can be interpreted and construed in many different ways. I also think it has a big part in politician advantage. Many public officials, politicians, etc. have turn to “hate speech” as a winning strategy and since they run the government, why would they limit a freedom that benefits them? As an educator, free speech is a topic that should be discussed with kids. However arguing free speech can take a turn for the worst in the classroom as well. I think it would be beneficial to have a discussion about respecting others opinions before such a discussion. It would be challenging though, because you cant have an open forum on free speech and ask students to make sure they aren’t hurting others with their words, etc because essentially, that is against free speech.

  5. Free speech is a concept that I have struggled with ever since i was young. i mean, what exactly falls under free speech? Surely there’s a point where what you’re saying is rude and can be stopped? But then, what if my rude isn’t some one else’s? There are people in my life that i would die for. These people happen to fall under categories that a lot of people discriminate against. It’s hard listening to hate speeches or reading terrible posts, but then i wonder what it’s like for them? Surely there has to be a way to address and stop the hate without taking away our freedom. Even if there isn’t, I wonder if it wouldn’t be that big of a deal to shorten the leash on our speech.

  6. Having the freedom of speech is something that we, as Americans, can often take for granted. Especially in today’s society when we use it to spread hate or violence. Having the freedom to speak is so important in our country today, which is why we must use our voices to advocate for what’s right. Speaking out in acts of violence and hate is not what our freedom is for. I think we should take a closer look into hate speech because that is not what the first amendment should be protecting in my opinion. Especially in education, when it comes to bullying and everything we see on social media.

  7. Freedom of Speech is a big topic in the United states right now because of the big divide that is taking place. People should be able to form their own opinions on things that they believe in, even if not everyone will agree with it. However, I do believe that if the opinions they are speaking can cause harm to an individual it should be limited. For instance, look at the Michelle Carter case. Her words and opinions cause a person to take their own life and she is now dealing with the consequences. Those who participate in hate speech should have to deal with the same or similar consequences.

  8. Freedom of speech has always been very important to me especially in high school and college. In high school I was the founder of the debate team at my first high school and we loved to debate hot button topics, but we had rules to keep us from crossing those boundaries of hurting other people. I feel like everyone should have the freedom to say what they want but when it comes to hate speech and purposely attacking who someone is it becomes more like bullying.

  9. Freedom of speech can be such a wonderful thing, but it can also be a toxic right. The majority of the time I see no issue with freedom of speech, people are just trying to express themselves and their beliefs, so what is so wrong about that? Well, sometimes people abuse their right to freedom of speech and say horrible things. I understand that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but is saying hurtful things, or threatening others really the best way to express that? Social media has made quite an effective shield for people who decide to spew hate. Screens, whether phone or computer, have made it easier than ever to say horrible things to and about other people. I think that maybe certain things should be monitored, for example threatening others lives, or just talking hatefully about others. Although I also know that if that were to start happening that a grey area would be formed and make it difficult to navigate what would follow those guidelines. Like I said before freedom of speech is such a wonderful thing, it is a shame that others have to ruin and taint that right.

  10. I think the thing that is stopping the supreme court from banning hate speech is, what is hate speech? Something that I find perfectly acceptable another person could find offensive and vise versa. This is why i can never support a law that limits word because the potential harm vastly out ways the current problem. People all around the world are arrested and imprisoned or even killed for things they say about the government or a group of people. While I know this is America and people can freely speak about whoever they want with a law like this things could quickly escalate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.