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. Games are a kind of home entertainment that interest lots of people. The video games are created to be difficult, however also fun. Hack games is a term that is made use of to describe the procedure of modifying a game in order for it to have an advantage or make use of the system. Hack video games can be done for numerous factors, including individual satisfaction and also revenue.

  2. I agree that there should be limitations to free speech. Although we do have the right to free speech and it is very important to us, there does have to be a point where a line needs to be drawn, such as hate speech. In no way should hate speech be allowed anywhere in this world. We were given this right to express ourselves freely, but not to spread hate.

  3. I think the freedom of speech is very important. I think people should be able to express themselves with their words as they please. However I agree that there should be a point it can not go past, For example hate speech, I agree that this should be illegals. I also think the same about using speech to start a riot.

  4. I believe that we hold freedom of speech, to an extent. However, I think that speech that signals violence, creates violence, targets another person or the government should be banned. I think there should be a stricter policy on what is socially acceptable, though.

  5. One of the many things people love about America is our Freedom, in particular the freedom of speech. Free Speech is a great thing to have and something we often take for granted. We are able to speak our minds about how we feel and what we believe in. I think freedom of speech is a hard thing for the courts to decide on especially when it is categorized as hate speech. I don’t think I could ever defend hate speech, even though it is protected in our constitution. People can say whatever they want, even hate groups such as the KKK that was mentioned in the article. It is fascinating to me how they are still a thriving (terrorist) group today but I guess that is due to our constitution, among other things (Trump’s America being one). It really makes you wonder if free speech is such a good thing when you really examine what it actually means.

  6. Freedom of speech does not mean you can say whatever you want. As you mentioned as examples, Fraud, obscenity, intellectual properties, and etc, are all things that the freedom of speech doesn’t cover. Freedom of speech is not the right to say any word of the dictionary in any order. It’s a right to express unique ideas that speak out against norms of our society. Freedom comes at the price of responsibility. The responsibility of not expressing hate or violence but debating with our fellow neighbors with reason.

    My Favorite quote is Spiderman’s “With great power, comes great responsibility”. The freedom of speech is a power that we take for granted.

    Yes, Free speech does have limitations. The limitations of responsibility.

  7. Free speech definitely has its limitations as we’ve seen most recently in many of the protests in support of Black Lives Matter. Many of these protests have been peaceful, people were just out exercising their right to free speech, but in turn many people have been arrested at these protests, or tear gassed, pepper sprayed, and even shot at. We say that in America we are given the opportunity for free speech, but I guess it depends on what you are protesting because it seems like the people with the power tend to determine what they consider to be free speech, which to me just defeats the whole purpose of that amendment. I think this article is really great at showing the true limitations on free speech, but also allowing us to consider some like hidden limitations that we have seen over the years, like the civil rights movement as stated in the article and the most recent events and protests.

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