Lesson 5: “Freedom of Speech…Always Protected?” (Grades 8-12)

Background: Citizens of the United States are taught from the very beginning that their right to free speech and press are perhaps the most sacred of all rights, and that it is uniformly protected in all circumstances…almost.  From the very beginning of our national experiment with democracy, there have been numerous tests of just how free speech is in America, whether the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 or the most recent Supreme Court case, Snyder v. Phelps, which ruled that peaceful protests can be held at military funerals as such protests are protected under the First Amendment.  The Supreme Court in particular has had to step in many times to help define the boundaries of free speech, and with endlessly evolving information and communication technologies that job will become even more important in the future.

Without question, Americans look to their First Amendment right to free speech probably as much if not more than any other protection afforded to them under our Constitution and Bill of Rights; for that reason, it demands much attention.  This lesson will seek to provide a background of some of the major free speech cases throughout our country’s history, where those rights have been allowed to be infringed upon by government, and where the courts have stepped in to prevent government from censoring speech.

Objective: At the conclusion of this lesson, students will have a thorough working knowledge and understanding of the significance of the first amendment to the constitution, the lengths to which people have gone to ensure that right is protected, and instances where our government has sought to quell certain types of speech and done so successfully.  Specifically, students will be able to identify and explain the significance of the following:

  • Alien and Sedition Acts (1798)
  • United States v. Thomas Cooper (1800)
  • The Espionage Act of 1917
  • The Sedition Act of 1918
  • Schenck v. United States (1919)
  • The Patriot Act (2001)
  • Snyder v. Phelps (2011)


  • Split the class into four groups, each looking at a different set of circumstances
    • Group 1: Alien & Sedition Acts/US v. Thomas Cooper
    • Group 2: The Espionage Act of 1917, The Sedition Act of 1918, and Schenck v. US
    • Group 3: The Patriot Act and Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project
    • Group 4: Snyder v. Phelps
  • Each group should be given the necessary documents, case summaries, etc. they need, as well as a set of questions to answer as they analyze their documents.  Questions should include:
    • What was the initial reason behind the government’s decision to limit free speech?   How did they attempt to explain their decision?
    • What were the results of such limitations on the public?  Trials, etc.?
    • What was the conclusion of the case or event?  Still upheld today?
    • Do you think the courts made the right decision?  Why or why not?
  • Be sure to include other questions specific to the case or circumstances each group is looking at as well.
  • Once they’ve looked over their documents and answered questions as an individual group, bring everyone together and have the students share their findings with the whole class.  Each group should have to be responsible for taking notes on the other’s presentations.  Be sure to ask students if they can identify any similarities and differences
  • Lastly, have a broader conversation about freedom of speech and if they believe it is every acceptable to limit our right to it.  Especially in the wake of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, two wars, and the limitlessness of the Internet and other communications technologies, is it right or acceptable or even possible to limit free speech in our society?  What would they be willing to do if they lived in a closed society or if all of a sudden they lost their first amendment rights?  (This might be a good place to make connections to the “Arab Spring” and uprisings in the Middle East, as the Internet—especially social media sites—was very much at the center of how these movements spread and would be a way for the kids to make relevant connections).  Is it alright for the government to take away some of our rights and freedoms if it is to keep us safe from harm?  If so, isn’t this a so-called slippery slope from which the government could keep coming up with reasons to take more and more rights and freedoms away?  How can we, in the 21st century, reconcile the need and priority of government to keep us safe with the rights and freedoms guaranteed to us as citizens by the Constitution and Bill of Rights?

Resources for Teachers:

U.S. v. Thomas Cooper

The Espionage Act of 1917

The Sedition Act of 1918

Schenck v. US (1919)

The Patriot Act

Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project

Snyder v. Phelps (2011)

DCPS Social Studies and National US History standards covered:

  • 8.2.7, 8.3.3, 8.3.4, 8.3.9, 8.4.3, 8.4.4, 8.4.5, 11.1.6, 11.1.7, 11.5.9, 11.13, 11.14.9, 12.1.5, 12.1.6, 12.2, 12.4.1, 12.4.2,, 12.8.5, 12.12.7
  • Era 3, Standard 3; Era 7, Standard3; Era 10, Standard 1

Virginia History and Social Science Standards of Learning covered:

  • USI.1, USI.6, USII.1, USII.4, USII.5, USII.9, CE.1, CE.2, CE.3, CE.10

Maryland State Social Studies Curriculum Standards covered:

  • Standard 1.0, Expectation 1, Topic A, Indicator 1, Objectives a, b, f, h, r
  • Standard 1.0, Expectation 1, Topic A, Indicator 2, Objectives a, g, i, k
  • Standard 1.0, Expectation 1, Topic B, Indicator 1, Objectives b, c, k
  • Standard 1.0, Expectation 2, Topic C, Indicator 1
  • Standard 1.0, Expectation 2, Topic C, Indicator 3, Objectives a-d

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