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Teaching Guide

Teaching Free Speech

Speak freely about free speech.

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People love talking about free speech. Arguing is one of our constitutional rights, after all, and our teaching guide will give you and your class plenty to talk about.

In this guide you will find

  • assignments about pivotal court cases and important quotes on free speech.
  • current events in which people speak freely about free speech.
  • essay questions on topics ranging from the Constitution to pornography. Yup.

We're not going to tell you what you can and can't say, but we will suggest that our teaching guide is a good place to start.

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Inside each guide you'll find quizzes, activity ideas, discussion questions, and more—all written by experts and designed to save you time. Here are the deets on what you get with your teaching guide:

  • 4-10 Common Core-aligned activities (including quotation, image, and document analysis) to complete in class with your students, with detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
  • Reading quizzes to be sure students are looking at the material through various lenses.
  • Resources to help make the topic feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop’s teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the topic and how you can overcome the hurdles.

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Instructions for You

The courts have recognized that defending free speech is difficult because speech can be powerful. Our history is filled with examples of inspiring oratory, of groups moved to action by words. In this exercise your students will examine the challenge of protecting forms of speech that unsettle public order. You might consider coupling this activity with the Case Analysis Activity that explores Brandenburg v. Ohio.

1. Ask your students to comment on this quote.

"Utterances inciting to the overthrow of organized government by unlawful means . . . by their very nature, involve danger to the public peace and to the security of the State. . . . A single revolutionary spark may kindle a fire that, smoldering for a time, may burst into a sweeping and destructive conflagration."
-- Justice Edward Terry Sanford in Gitlow v. New York, 1925

Is it true? Can words stir people to violent actions?

  • Can you identify any example in history where words incited groups to anger or action?

Do words always have an immediate effect?

  • Do they smolder?
  • Can a book, a song, or speech contribute to some violent act?

2. Next show your students this quotation and ask them what they think.

"A function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger."
-- Justice William Douglas, in Terminiello v. City of Chicago, 1949

  • Is this true?
  • is stirring people to anger or inducing unrest an important function of speech?
  • Can you cite examples in history where a provocative speech has inspired positive change or action?

3. Next ask students to select the quotation that should most shape the courts’ interpretation of rights of speech?

  • Should the courts be most concerned with the power of speech or its importance?
  • How much should public peace and safety influence the courts’ response to provocative speech?

(Lesson aligned with CA 12th grade American government standards 12.2.1, 12.2.5, 12.5.1)

Instructions for Your Students

Words can be powerful… but can they be too powerful? What do we do if words stir people to anger or provoke them to violence? Should the speaker be silenced? Or is this the risk we must take in order to protect free speech?

You will be discussing these questions. In order to prepare, you might think about the following quotations. Are they true? Is one more true than the other? If both are true, how should the courts respond to provocative speech?

"Utterances inciting to the overthrow of organized government by unlawful means . . . by their very nature, involve danger to the public peace and to the security of the State. . . . A single revolutionary spark may kindle a fire that, smoldering for a time, may burst into a sweeping and destructive conflagration."

"A function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger."

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Check out all the different parts of our corresponding learning guide.

Intro    Just the Facts    Key Concepts    History    Timeline    Quotes    Questions    Photos    Best of the Web    Citations    
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