Lesson Plans

Lesson Plan: Exceptions to Free Speech


Exceptions to Free Speech





Students are familiar with their First Amendment rights. This lesson asks the question “What exceptions are there to Freedom of Speech?”.  Students will answer this question through examining the Interactive Constitution, reading relevant texts, and participating in a civil conversation.








One 90 minute block/two 45 minute periods


RESOURCES (title only – attach complete files separately)

Interactive Constitution Common Interpretation https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/amendments/amendment-i/the-freedom-of-speech-and-of-the-press-clause/interp/33

Relevant case studies: Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000) Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) West Virginia v. Barnette (1943) Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988) National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie (1977) All available on https://www.oyez.org/cases/2016 (use search box to locate specific cases) *Other cases are also linked within the Interactive Constitution and are also appropriate

Texts:  You Can’t Say That Articles

Handout: Civil Conversation Guide

Rubric: Civil Conversation Self-Assessment Tool




Freedom of Speech is a tightly held and highly valued right guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.  Often, students see issues in black and white, and struggle with the gray area. Reading and analyzing Supreme Court case studies and recent news articles will help students gain understanding of the limits of freedom of speech according to the law.





Students will:


  • Generate discussion questions based on a primary source
  • Discuss controversial issues with people with differing views
  • Speak clearly and persuasively about public issues





CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.11-12.1: Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions with diverse partners on grades 11-12 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.






  1. Bell Ringer: Pose the following the questions to students:

Does this violate the First Amendment’s freedom of speech? Why or why not? 1. You work in a retail store after school and on weekends. Your boss says you have to stop talking so much while you’re working. 2. Your public school administrator suspends you for wearing a black armband in protest of a war. 3. Your public school principal says you can’t come to school as long as your hair is dyed purple. 4. You do not wish to say the Pledge of Allegiance each morning, and your principal expels you.

  1. Conduct a brief discussion based off students’ responses to above questions
  2. Introduce the probing question “What exceptions are there to Freedom of Speech?”. Brainstorm possibilities, writing responses on the board.
  3. Project Interactive Constitution 1st Amendment Common Interpretations
  4. Break students into 5 groups, one for each of the Supreme Court Case studies. Students should annotate their texts looking for key details and ideas, as well as pertinent evidence.
  5. A representative from each group will present a basic overview of their case: the facts of the case, the question and the decision.
  6. Distribute selected You Can’t Say That article, allowing students to read and annotate.
  7. Prepare for a civil conversation. Distribute the Civil Conversation guide, allowing enough time for students to work with a partner to collect their thoughts. Students should be drawing from the articles, texts and classroom discussion to formulate their responses. Ask students to write two discussion worthy questions about the texts/court cases.
  8. Organize desks in a circle and go over the guidelines of a civil conversation as presented on the handout.
  9. Whip Around the room, asking each student to share one of their “discussion- worthy questions” without explanation. Students can endorse another student’s question if they had a similar question. Keep track of the questions presented, noting categories as you record responses. Share with the group the most often mentioned questions or categories and ask for student agreement to start with one of those questions. You can use these questions if the conversation lags or become repetitive.
  10. Conduct your civil conversation according to your classroom practice. As discussion winds down, ask if any students who have not had a chance to get into the conversation would like to add. Direct students to turn and talk to the person next to them to share their last and best thoughts on the topic and texts.
  11. Debrief: Students complete #6 and #7 on the Civil Conversation guide


Begin the debriefing by asking students to answer questions 6 and 7 on the reading guide.

Then ask:

  • What did the class do well in the civil conversation? Where could we improve?
    • What did you learn from the civil conversation?
    • What did you have in common with other group members?





Create a bulletin board display with themes presented in the Civil Conversation serving as headings. Invite students to bring in news items related to those themes.


Invite a civil rights attorney or activist in your community to come speak to your class.








  1. Collect students’ Civil Conversation Guides
  2. Students use a self- assessment tool, providing a one sentence rationale for their rating.



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