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Social Studies Online: Digital Literacy Connections to Civics and History

Social Studies Online: Digital Literacy Connections to Civics and History Activity: To Speak or Not to Speak… Freely

Instructions for Your Students

We all know that the U.S. Constitution protects free speech... in most situations. You can't, for instance, yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater unless:

  1. there really is a fire
  2. you're interested in spending some serious quality time with the police

But what if you Tweeted "Fire!" when there wasn't one? Or claimed there was a fire (when there wasn't) in your Facebook status update? The issue isn't always so cut and dried in our digital world.

Can you get in trouble for your Tweets, Facebook updates, and Tumblr pics under the law? Check out a real-life case about a high school student who Tweeted about her governor—and what happened after—and decide for yourself.

Step 1: The first thing you need to do is inform yourself. In class, take a few minutes to read the New York Times article "Twitter Tangle: Governor Apologizes to Student." 

Step 2: Now that you have the basic story, your teacher will help divide your class in half and assign each group one of the following debate positions:

  • Group A position: Emma Sullivan's right to free speech was violated by her school.
  • Group B position: Emma Sullivan's right to free speech was not violated.

Gather with your group (A or B), and spend the next 25–30 minutes researching the Emma Sullivan kerfuffle—and the right to free speech in general. Collect as much as much evidence as you can to support your side of the argument. (Ahem: you should also anticipate how you might address possible counter arguments from the other group.) 

Psst! The following resources may be helpful:

Take notes as you research and then work with your team to consolidate your best evidence into talking points you can use during a class debate of this issue. Keep in mind that during the debate, you'll likely need to make an opening statement, present evidence to counter claims made by the other group, and make a closing statement. 

You might want to divide your group into subgroups to handle each of these tasks. 

Step 3: Debate time. Your teacher will lay down the format, ensuring that both groups get time to present key evidence from their research and that each group gets a chance to respond to each piece of evidence presented. 

Step 4: At the end of the debate, you'll get a chance to vote: Ultimately, do you think Emma Sullivan's right to free speech was violated? It will be interesting to see which way the vote goes and what pieces of evidence proved most persuasive.