Should Students Have Free Speech?

Should Students Have Free Speech?
Hillary Clinton: Law, Politics and Govt

Skill: Middle School
Time Required: Two to three class periods


In 1969, Hillary Rodham Clinton was a graduating senior at Wellesley College.  She was asked to be the very first student to speak at a Wellesley commencement ceremony. In 1969, the same year that Hillary Rodham gave her commencement speech at her graduation from Wellesley College, the Supreme Court rendered a verdict in a landmark case that answered the question, "Does the First Amendment guarantee of free speech apply to school students?"  At issue was the case of three high school students in Iowa who wore black arm bands to school in protest of the Vietnam War.


Students who participate in this activity will consider the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech, learn about some landmark cases supporting the freedom of speech, and engage in a debate about the extent to which freedom of speech rights should apply to school students.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet.  Access to print materials about the Constitution, freedom of speech, and, if possible, the Tinker case.


1.  Begin the lesson by discussing all of the guarantees in the First Amendment, and then centering on the guarantee of freedom of speech.  Ask students if they believe that all citizens should have the right of freedom of speech; are there any limits to that right?

2.  Using the website (below) about symbolic speech, and after the class reads the text about freedom of speech, divide the class into six small groups, assigning each group the task of deciding the merits of one of the six cases described on the site.  Each group should also look at the case involved, and discover what the actual court decision was (this can be done in a computer lab, or by taking turns with a classroom computer).

3.  Then, ask the class as a whole if, based on their reading, there seem to be any general standards that seem to apply to freedom of speech.  Write the standards on the board.

4.  Have students read the case summary, but not the decision.  Ask students to decide what they think the Court's verdict was.  Then let them read the decision and discuss its relation to their prediction.

5.  After the discussion, ask students to think about some issues that they might be willing to "stand up for" in school.  When they have compiled a list, ask them to decide whether "standing up" for each particular issue should be allowed in school?  What activities might they engage in that would fall into the category of "protected speech," and what activities would not?

6.  Conclude the lesson by asking students to engage in the activity described on the "Gangs, Tattoos, and Symbolic Speech" site listed below.  Or, if there is currently an issue of free or symbolic speech being debated in your school at the present time, substitute that issue for the Tattooing issue, and ask students to rewrite school policy to resolve the problem.

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson might be extended by having students explore the aftermath of the Tinker case in the lives of the participants (see "What Does Tinker v. Des Moines Mean to You?" below). Or, students could engage in some of the other activities suggested on any of the sites listed below.

Sources & Resources:




This lesson was adapted by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.