Today, I invite you to join the National Endowment for the Humanities together with the Media Institute and the National Association of Broadcasters Education Foundation (NABEF) to commemorate Freedom of Speech Week, October 17–23, 2005, and to consider this fundamental right guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Among our nation’s freedoms, those enshrined in the First Amendment are truly the bedrock. Freedom of thought, speech, and worship is the keystone of our liberties. NEH, led by the staff of our EDSITEment project and the We the People program, has assembled selected lesson plans, features, and Web links, to help you celebrate this week, and to broaden your understanding of the First Amendment.
—Bruce Cole, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities, 2001–2008
Young people have a profound sense of the importance of fairness. "It's not fair" is often used as a one-size-fits-all argument when a child feels victimized. In situations where the child has an interest in protecting his or her actions, "It's a free country!" is often the argument of choice. On the other hand, children are very sensitive about speech and policies they consider to have a negative effect on their well-being. Almost every day on the playground, the difficult issues surrounding our right to free speech and our responsibility to avoid harming someone else with our speech are debated with as much emotion—if not as much impact—as they have been in the courts, legislatures, and meeting halls of this land.
Balancing rights and responsibilities is difficult, even for the Supreme Court. This lesson demonstrates to students that freedom of speech is an ongoing process.
Freedom of speech is a fundamental American right, and regulation of that freedom has been a fundamental responsibility of the Supreme Court throughout our history. With the Internet, students can observe firsthand how today's Court exercises this responsibility at a time when technology has extended the freedom to speak in ways our nation's founders could not have imagined.
In this lesson, students are able to trace the judicial review process within the Supreme Court from determination of facts through oral argument and the delivery of a written opinion; to examine the nature and limits of the Constitutional right to freedom of speech; and to explore the nature and purpose of dissent within the context of Supreme Court rulings
The Sedition Act touched off a lively debate about the right of free speech. It also presented an early test case to the citizens and government of the United States. In times of war or imminent danger, how do you balance the need for security with the rights of individuals? How can partisan politics affect the process of shaping security policies?
Any discussion of the Sedition Act must include a discussion of the First Amendment. How that amendment was understood in 1798 differs from our current understanding after 200 years of interpretation. For some early history of the amendment, read the first page of the essay Freedom of Expression—Speech and Press Adoption and the Common Law Background on Findlaw, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Oyez.
What kind of rights does the Bill of Rights guarantee? Teachers, parents, and students can learn more about the rights that are extended to all citizens in this document with the EDSITEment lesson, The First Amendment: What's Fair in a Free Country? This lesson introduces elementary school aged children to the Bill of Rights, and to the First Amendment in particular. You can also learn more about the rights- and responsibilities- of citizenship by accessing more information available through a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed site, CongressLink. Students can also distinguish between instances of free speech that are and are not protected by the Constitution in the EDSITEment lesson, Regulating Freedom of Speech. Another excellent EDSITEment lesson for learning about the Bill of Rights is The Preamble to the Constitution: How Do You Make a More Perfect Union?
See especially LaunchPad Questions on the Bill of Rights.
One of the most famous political speeches on freedom in the twentieth century was delivered by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his 1941 State of the Union message to Congress. The address is commonly known as the “Four Freedoms” speech, and an excerpt is available through the EDSITEment-reviewed website POTUS—Presidents of the United States. In the relevant part of the speech, President Roosevelt announced:
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.