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 quite a touchy subject. I think we as Americans take advantage of the rights we have. We have the privilege to speak without being thrown in jail and punished, instead of appreciating that and using it for good some people use it to spread hate. It is sad how we take our rights for granted. The freedom of speech is so important but there is a line people cross. Just because you are allowed to say it and won’t be punished for it doesn’t mean you should say it. People don’t realize how much their words hurt and affect others.

  2. Freedom of speech is one of the integral parts of the freedoms that come with being an American citizen. We are able to openly criticize other citizens, celebrities, corporations, the government; we are able to put our thoughts and opinions into the world without fear of federal prosecution. However, doing such things and having freedom of speech does not protect us from backlash and judgment from those around us and anyone else who may hear our words. Social pressure and “cancel culture” affects people’s freedom to be able to say what they want due to the fear of offending others and having things in your life be effected due to the backlash.

  3. The benefits of free speech in democracy include putting ideas on the table and starting important conversation that would not otherwise be there. It unifies the country because people feel connected through common ideas, topics and opinions. I do not think there should be a curb on free speech because knowing the boundaries of what to speak about and how to present ideas should be a common ground. People should know how to respectfully talk about issues and such. There are dangers to calling something hate speech because a person could be offended by such an assumption. Sometimes the way people present ideas are not how they intend it to be. One usually determines what is classified as hate speech by the words the person uses and the tone, they hear it as. The notion of hate speech can be used as a weapon because it provides a negative thought or act against someone to make them feel lesser and that will only tear our country apart and deviate from what this country was founded upon- unity.

  4. Freedom of Speech and the First Amendment are so important and everyone is legally entitled to say what they think or feel. With that comes the thin line of what should be said and what is said. I do not believe the First Amendment was put in place or intended for hate speech or any kind of negative words or slang to be used. I believe that people have used their rights to blur the line into what they wanted their freedom of speech to mean; causing hate speech. I wonder if Congress would put more limitations and guidelines to the First Amendment knowing that hate speech and violence could be an outcome of people having a right to say what they feel. With freedom of speech being so important I believe as individuals it is important to monitor how the things we say come across and as future educators we teach our students that there is a line between right and wrong and that can be included in our words and speech.

  5. This has always been a hot topic for me. As someone who likes to think that constitutional rights are to be held at a high pedestal, I must concede that the constitution isn’t perfect, much less can it stand the test of time. The first amendment does give you the right to free speech. Without any boundaries though? or consequences? Or who is to say what is okay and what isn’t? Most importantly, we need to have the conversation about hate speech. There is no place for it, we can’t continue to let people hide behind the law as their excuse for their actions.

  6. Freedom of speech is a very touchy subject for many reasons. Our first amendment is freedom of speech, however we aren’t always allowed to say what he we really want too. I believe that freedom of speech causes a lot of unwanted fights in today’s world. When someone has a strong opinion on something they will say how they feel, however if someone doesn’t agree with it they too will then voice their opinion on the matter. Everyone is always going to have an opinion on certain topics, and it’s up to us to use our freedom in speech the right way to minimize the arguments which could result in using our first amendment freely.

  7. Freedom of speech is such a tricky topic to completely nail down. Whole there is laws of what can and can not be said even with tries in place there are lots of questions on what’s allowed an not allowed. I think it’s very important to remember that freedom of speech is the freedom to tell your opinions to the world, not talk down on groups or publicly shame others. This is when Hate speech comes in. There is a huge difference between voicing your opinion and voicing hate. Social media has allowed more people to voice their opinions but it has also allowed a lot of people to hate on one another. With the added procreation of the screen people feel more comfortable voicing their option (or hate) because their persona can be whatever they want on the internet, they are a username instead of a person. Prior to reading this article I didn’t know about the limitations on freedom of speech. I think it should be monitored more on social media platforms to better protect citizens.

  8. I believe our right to free speech is extremely important. The right to stand up for what we believe in or to simply just share our opinions about things is very important. However, I do believe there is a line that some people cross on both sides of politics. Usually, in life there is a small group of people who ruin it for everyone else. I believe the issue of free speech is one of topics. I believe that when the First Amendment was written and put into place, the intentions were appropriate and good for that time period. However, our biggest issue today is social media. Social media is where everything gets controversial and tricky. Technology makes it very easy for someone to say something that others may not agree with and allow for others to be offended by it. Being offended is not the issue, however. Everyone disagrees with someone about everything. No two people will ever agree on every single thing. That being said, with social media is also much easier for someone to hide behind a computer and incite violence. This is where the issue lies. Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing that can be turned into something terrible by angry people who only want to spread negative words and promote violence.

  9. I enjoyed reading this article because I agree with much of what is stated. The freedom of speech is one of the many rights we have and we make use of it. It is a right however we tend to abuse. When we use it to make threats against each other we are abusing our freedom of speech. I think of the freedom of speech as more of a privilege than a right. It’s a privilege that should be used to communicate with each other in terms of support to maintain peace. If it is being mistreated and abused, then our government should have the ability to step in before lifelong consequences take place.

  10. I really enjoyed reading this article and the comments posted by other students. In today’s society social media platforms have a huge impact on how we all interact with one another. Thankfully, this often times means that some of the hate speech and/or more graphic material is censored for the general public. Similarly to what Kyle Owens said, I believe there needs to be a point where the government steps in as well. Hate speech is a serious topic and can lead to horrific consequences if not monitored. Our government should have some of this control and protect its citizens in such instances.

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