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. Directly addressing the title of the article, I believe free speech limitations are necessary under conditions that imply harm to others. However I can’t help but focus on the phrase “true threat” as it seems to be a matter of interpretation. In extremely recent news, it has become apparent that despite the first amendments granting of “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” the chosen diction can incite further malpractice(by police). The further elaboration on unprotected or lesser protected matters of speech (by the first amendment) seem to be left up to interpretation by authorities which may allow for discriminatory behavior. In regard to hate speech, I always believed hate speech was considered a hate crime as it seemed to indicate an imminent threat and infringes on the liberty of those affected, so I am bewildered by the tolerance. The attached resources are very beneficial and necessary for educational and legal purposes.

  2. I do believe free speech has its limitations and we have seen these limitations firsthand over the past 2 weeks with the killing of George Floyd. Peaceful protestors are being shot at/ pepper sprayed/ tear gassed for holding a sign that says, “black lives matter”. This should be not freedom of speech if their health is at risk for doing so. I think that the protest that are going on are bigger than most and we truly have never seen our freedom of speech jeopardized until now. I do hope that changes happen soon that protesters don’t have to worry about exercising their first amendment.

  3. Freedom of speech is a topic that I am not very familiar with. As a future teacher I think that this is an important topic to have knowledge on. Students in my class will be able to express their political opinions freely, of course at appropriate times. As a teacher, my goal is to instill values into my students that they will be able to take with them for the rest of their lives. A value that I want to instill is being law abiding citizens, to do this they need to understand the laws and regulations that they are surrounded by. The lesson plans that are included in this article would be a great resource for any teacher that wants their students to have an understanding of freedom of speech. Overall, this article is a great resource for anyone who wants to know more about freedom of speech in America.

  4. In this article, I thought there was so much information that I didn’t know about before. I believe that having free speech is important but taking advantage of your freedom of speech is horrible and causes so much tension among different groups of people. I do think that stopping hate speech is going to be very hard to accomplish. I think it will be hard to stop hate speech because people really are going to say whatever they want unless there is something on the line. Hate speech isn’t something that is punished by the law and legally you are able to say whatever, but some people can’t post hate speech because of their job or name. If you saw one of your professors posting hate speech online they could easily lose their job. There Is always going to be some way for people to get around hate speech and posting their views online.

  5. The idea and controversy of hate speech being included in our 1st amendment rights is a very fine line. As the article mentions, do we risk interrupting the flow of our 1st amendment rights or do we put legal and specific limitations on hate speech? There is little doubt that either way can cause ripple effects that shape our country. If you are asking me, I say we put limitations and take legal action against hate speech. There is a distinct difference between hate speech and regular speech and the former has no place in society. There is no law against believing what you believe and much of what you want to say may be done within your private domicile, even with a group of others who believe the same thing. Threating the livelihood of others based on sex, race, religion, etc. is not appropriate and causes more harm than good. I do not believe we should quiet beliefs and protest that fight for a cause, I just do not see a need for the KKK or any other group to be able to publicly announce their hate towards others.

  6. I have always enjoyed the idea of having the freedom to speech. I believe people deserve the right to speak up for what they believe in. However, I agree that there are times when people abuse this right. I agree that there is a fine line that separates a person speaking their thoughts and a person attempting to cause damage. I have noticed on a few social platforms that there will be one person who voices their personal opinions, and there will be comments that follow that are just cruel. The comments were not being used to speak up for one’s belief; they were being used to purposely cause conflict. These are the instances that overstep the line and abuse our right to freedom of speech.

  7. Hate speech is becoming more and more normalized in today’s world, especially with the boom of social media sites. I know many sites that monitor and to an extent, control what is posted, but people feel way too comfortable putting others down behind a computer screen where they feel “safe”. I do believe as Americans we should have a right to freedom of speech and we should protect that amendment, but I feel as a future educator around a community of other future educators we have great influence on the next generation of kids that come through our classrooms. I believe we need to take advantage of that and teach these students that freedom of speech is a good thing, but that we should not abuse that right with hate speech, etc.

  8. Freedom of speech is a tricky thing because while I feel like it is necessary that people should be allowed to say what they want sometimes that speech can harm others. The issue I think is that it would be hard to have hate laws because there can be so many different things that could fall under hate speech and what would we allow and disallow. I don’t think we can limit one group of people from being able to say what they want and not limit the other. I think that hate speech is too broad of a term to limit unless you take away hate of all kind and to be honest the people that speak hate are not necessarily going to be stopped just because there is a law on it. I think our jobs as teachers is to have the discussion with our students and show them the effects of hate speech so that they have the knowledge to know that what they say can be hurtful and that they need to be mindful of others when they use their First Amendment right.

  9. I remember my fifth grade teacher explaining the freedom of speech with the history behind it. She talked about being a colony and how individuals were punished for having their own opinions and simply speaking them aloud. When the Constitution was written, the Founding Fathers wanted to guarantee that people during that time and in the future were protected in this way.She explained it that you could say anything as long as it wasn’t threatening toward someone else’s well-being. She gave examples that sound inappropriate for young learners but we knew guns or bombings existed. I didn’t realize the many complications that exist just between the First Amendment and what many courts will rule. Most common decisions make sense but to stop and compare the two catches your attention to the norm.

  10. I find it interesting that though our constitution & court judges say one thing, the American people have ‘said’ another thing throughout their actions over the years. The fact that people have been assassinated & martyred for something that they’ve said makes the point that Americans are not respecting one another’s right. If that’s the case—I believe it’s up to the government to create new bounds for us to speak under the law. At the same time, I admit it is a quite difficult thing to monitor because you must at times interpret people’s words, and sometimes their is no concrete proof of an individual’s words.

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