What Are the Limits of Free Speech? A Classroom Discussion for Constitution Day

By Sarah Schwartz — September 17, 2019 4 min read
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The students at Logan View High School in Hooper, Neb., and the students at Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park, Ill., are usually separated by almost 500 miles.

But today, they met virtually, connecting over two very American topics: football and the United States Constitution.

The Nebraska and Illinois students were participating in the discussion for National Constitution Day, an annual holiday when schools are required to participate in lessons on the founding document.

Their videoconference call, facilitated through the nonprofit National Constitution Center, was centered on the question: When can the government regulate or prohibit speech? Soon the topic turned to kneeling during the National Anthem, according to the students.

A lot of people at Logan View High School don’t agree that players should kneel, said senior Preston Kotik, a student in the American Government class at Logan View that participated in the discussion, speaking with Education Week after the exchange.

But the conversation wasn’t a forum for students to share their personal opinions, he said. Instead, students had to explain whether they thought certain actions were constitutional or not, and justify their points.

Guided by a trained moderator from the National Constitution Center, the students talked about how different players might have different rights to speak out through their protest.

Students in Carl Sandburg High School brought up Chicago Bears players who had knelt, and Logan View students mentioned University of Nebraska student athletes who had also, Kotik said. He said that the moderator explained: Bears players could be fired for speech the that team owners don’t agree with, as the National Football League is a private organization.

But University of Nebraska football players may be on a bit firmer legal grounding, Kotik said the moderator explained to the two classes. The university is a public school. In Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), the Supreme Court ruled that public school officials can’t discipline students for participating in protests at school, unless they disrupt school events.

Students “really like to know about their rights as young people, and they like to discuss their rights in a school setting,” said Nick Hegge, the American Government teacher at Logan View. “When they have that background knowledge, you can really see them taking more of an interest.”

Avoiding Bias

Year after year, studies have shown that Americans’ civic knowledge is pretty poor. In a recent survey of American adults by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, only 39 percent could correctly name the three branches of government—a five-year record high.

Still, the survey found that knowledge around constitutional rights was a little stronger. For example, 83 percent of respondents knew that the U.S. Supreme Court has held that a citizen has a constitutional right to own a handgun.

See also: Citizen Z: An Education Week Project

The National Constitution Center is one organization trying to increase public awareness about the rights and responsibilities written into the Constitution. In this classroom exchange program, the organization pairs schools for these conversations and provides trained moderators. In advance of this Constitution Day, the Center opened up the program to teachers across the country, after a pilot during the 2018-2019 school year.

The organization’s most well-known classroom resource is its Interactive Constitution, released in 2015. The website has the full text of the Constitution available, alongside analysis from both the American Constitution Society, a left-leaning legal organization, and the Federalist Society, a conservative and libertarian legal organization. For each article and amendment, there’s a common interpretation—co-signed by both a liberal and a conservative legal scholar—and opposing viewpoints on matters still open for debate.

Along with launching the virtual exchange platform this year, the organization also released a Classroom Edition that accompanies the Interactive Constitution, with lesson plans, videos and podcasts, and early drafts of the document.

Hegge said he often uses the common interpretation that the Interactive Constitution provides in his classroom, so that he can explain the articles or amendments without worrying about injecting his own bias.

And it can be difficult for students to reconcile personal political beliefs with what the Constitution legally permits. Elizabeth Hull, another senior at Logan View who participated in the exchange, said she struggles with this sometimes.

“I don’t think hate speech is okay, and it should be punishable,” she said, as an example. “But the Constitution says it’s okay as long as it doesn’t cause imminent danger.”

Still, she appreciated that the exchange today took the form of a conversation, rather than a debate.

“It wasn’t really an argument-type setting,” she said. “I personally like a discussion better, because then things don’t get as heated. You have the opportunity to politely disagree with someone, rather than force your views on them.”

Image: Getty

Do you have a good idea for teaching civics or encouraging K-12 students to develop civic behaviors and attitudes? Education Week, as part of its ongoing Citizen Z initiative, is looking to gather 100 good ideas for teaching civics. Send your tips, quick lessons, after-school activities, and community projects to

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.

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