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 is one of those hard concepts in our government to handle. If you give 100% free speech like the First Amendment states, there are plenty of people who get off the hook when it comes to things that should be considered crimes and have jail time (this would be like the KKK). If you limit the freedom of speech that people have though, you end up with people going to jail for expressing their opinion to the public. This can lead to hate crimes happening even more frequent. There would probably be many riots that occur too. It will always be a hard balance and I don’t know if we will ever get it right.

  2. This article touches on a very controversial topic, freedom of speech. The constitution has protected citizens’ rights in America for a very long time. It has allowed citizens to share their true thoughts without fear of retaliation from the government. Recently, with new social media platforms, it has become easier to see how this right is being taken advantage of with the spread of hate speech. Many people want there to be limitations on freedom of speech to not protect language which is hateful towards others. I wish that there were an easy way to achieve this, however I worry that asking for this limitation could lead the government to seek retaliation on any speech that goes against their political platform. For example would they seek out members of the Black Lives Matter movement and prevent them from speaking out and gathering because it involves race?

  3. I found this article to be very relevant in the current political climate. I think that not enough light is shed on those who have been killed at the hands of people trying to stifle freedom of speech, and I would even go one step further to say that there are many people in history who may not have been killed, but were certainly blacklisted or shunted into the background because of their beliefs. One person in particular that comes to mind is Bayard Rustin, who was an integral contributor to the March on Washington and made countless contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. However, he was a gay black man who had extremely liberal views for the time, and was accused of being a communist and a pervert because of his views and lifestyle. Because of this, most people do not know how important he was to the Civil Rights Movement, or who he even was period. I also always think its interesting when I read about the caveats of the first amendment, because a couple of those caveats is that speech that “incites imminent lawless actions” and “true threats” are not protected under the first amendment. Hate speech, particularly in this day and age, often leads to violent and “lawless” actions, such as the attacks in South Carolina or countless shootings at bars or grocery store or night clubs, and certainly true threats that can be clearly seen on social media such as Facebook or Twitter. It seems odd to me that those posts or websites can often be protected under the guise of “freedom of speech” when it so regularly does what the first amendment warns about.

  4. The line, “As it stands, hate speech is protected under the US Constitution.”, really stood out to me. Its mind boggling to think that in some ways this is true. Often, freedom of speech can be taken advantage of and is used in a negative way. Freedom of speech can be used to harm others. This has become a huge issue in our society today, especially with social media. People often don’t know what boundaries they should follow when sharing opinions and views. For example, it’s hard to think how groups such as the KKK have been protected by freedom of speech. In another sense it’s nice to think about how we are able to share our political views without fear of punishment. In conclusion, there is a good and bad side to freedom of speech. It is used for good but can also be taken advantage of.

  5. Unfortunately, our nations freedom of speech is an often tested and vague concept. I wish there was a law for human decency where this freedom wasn’t abused to hurt or hate on others, but sadly, we need to be unbiased and tolerant because it is a slippery slope to define what types of speech are allowed or not. I did not know about the free speech exceptions, but it makes since that these boundaries exist. As the country does become more divided on various fronts, it turns out to be difficult than ever to know what types of expression are acceptable, and it is important to remember the wise old advice we all know: “Think before you speak.”

  6. Freedom of Speech is something that is easy for people to fall back on. People believe that they can say anything and be completely protected by “Freedom of Speech,” but as we know now, that is not the case. People who voice their opinions on politics or various issues have led to assassination. This definitely is wrong considering what freedom of speech means. Social Media and the media have made it very easy for people to express their opinions. Since it is so easy for people to post online or say it to a camera, I think often people do not realize how strong their opinion may come off or how vindictive they may be. I think it is important that there are limitations to what is freedom of speech. I did not know that there were restrictions, prior to reading this article. I believe that Americans should think more before posting or voicing their opinions.

  7. Free speech, as you said, is an integral part of our constitution and as you also said it allows the freedom to express our opinions on all factors of life, from social to political, without fear of repercussion. This is all opinions of everyone, including those that speak out against others in a hateful manner. Under this definition, I believe hate speech falls under the protection of the first amendment, unless it is specifically a call to physically harm people. This doesn’t mean that we have to accept hate speech however, we can help educate others on what is hurtful to others and consider what we are saying as well. We can help to influence others to be nicer to everyone, and help people express their opinions in a way that is constructive to everyone.

  8. When thinking of free speech, the first example that comes to mind is the groups of people or individuals that come to college campuses to spread their own thoughts and opinions. These people often times come looking for a fight or to have an argument with students. Here at our own university it is seen multiple times throughout a semester. Although these people are technically covered under the First Amendment, I still don’t think they have a right to verbally attack students who are just trying to get around campus. At times, I have heard grown men yell terrible things to female students for a simple article of clothing. I am aware that the campus is a public university and anyone is allowed on, however, it seems weird that they are also allowed to harass and make the students feel uncomfortable, but yet still be protected by the First Amendment.

  9. Personally, I have always thought that the idea that people are allowed to voice their feelings, opinions and stances on things they feel passionate about is important. However, I do believe that this is not a completely black and white situation and in order to avoid chaos and things like hate speech there 100% should be ethical limitations on this right. This would create less occurances of people taking advantage of their freedom of speech to hurt others. Our freedom of speech is one of the most beautiful things about our country until the individual uses it with the intent to harm others.

  10. Limitations for freedom of speech have always been a big question for me, how far can you go before there is repercussions? Is there a freedom of speech spectrum that someone can judge and justify if they are able to take action upon something that is said?  Also, do we take everything as seriously as the next when it is being said? There is no question that hate speech is becoming easier to spread because of social media and online access. I do think that speech should be acted upon the degree of hatred, threat, and obscenity being used. As long as people are able to get their points across in a mature non-threatening way then the constitution should still be able to protect that right. But, whose to judge on what others say? 

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