Should you be able to say anything you want?

Freedom of speech and the ability of government to regulate it have been an issue since before the United States was founded.

Most Americans know the first amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees a right to freedom of speech, but what does that mean? Is it an unlimited right? Might there be reasons for an exception?

The following questions are meant to have a good discussion with youth about the freedom of speech. This activity can be done within a family, as part of school activities, a 4-H club or with any group working with young people. Encourage a robust dialogue about these issues, and encourage young people to find data to back up their opinions. During the discussion, try to limit interjecting your own opinions and let the youth discuss it among themselves.

Why did our founding fathers guarantee a freedom of speech in the Constitution? How is freedom of speech in the United States different than other countries?

Should freedom of speech include all forms of expression, such as dance, visual arts or media?

Where should the line between freedom of speech and harassment occur? Should a student be allowed to make bullying comments to other students? Should a comedian be able to make similar comments about the president? Should people be allowed to make threatening comments to another person? Does it matter if the comments are serious?

What about slander and libel? Should a person be able to make false accusations about you, or should you have the right to sue them? Should companies be required to tell the truth on their packaging and in advertising? If so, who should enforce it when they do not tell the truth?

Should there be limits on offensive language? Who determines what is offensive? Do you think what is considered offensive changes over time? What about racially charged language? Should there be limits on that? Why or why not?

Should there be limits to where free speech can take place? If a group has a picket line that interferes with a business, should that be allowed? Why or why not? What if a protest interferes with access to a public space, like a government building, park or road? Should the government or private organizations be able to restrict protest to “free speech zones?” Why or why not?

Should your employer be able to limit your expression by not allowing tattoos or certain hairstyles? Should your employer be able to fire you for saying things they disagree with when you are not at your job?

In school, should there be limits to free speech? Does a public school having a dress code or a uniform violate your free speech rights?

Hopefully, these questions will get some good discussion going about personal rights. This type of conversation is similar to the conversations our policy makers grapple with every day. If you have some great ideas, share them with your local county, city or township or your state or federal legislators.

To learn about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth leadership, citizenship and service and global and cultural education programs, read our 2016 Impact Report: “Developing Civically Engaged Leaders.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan State University Extension and Michigan 4-H have positively impacted individuals and communities in 2016, can be downloaded from the MSU Extension website.

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