Lesson Plan: Free Speech or Hate Speech?

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This lesson plan is designed to use the film The Fire Next Time to look at what happens when free speech dissolves into hate speech. The hour-long documentary looks at a two-year period in the life of a dangerously divided town and shows how heated rhetoric can devolve into hate, intimidation, and violence.

Tears in the fabric of community life in Kalispell, Montana, began with the loss of timber and aluminum industry jobs. The fire of resentment was stoked by a radio talk show host who blamed environmental regulation, declaring environmentalists "the enemy."

In addition, a major forest fire in the Flathead National Forest literally sparked community anger over Forest Service policies (and the actions of environmentalists) -- which some people claimed contributed to the fire.

While some community members attempted to address local tensions, fear and intimidation silenced others. Few in the Flathead Valley region realized just how serious the fight had become until February 2002, when police arrested right-wing militia member David Burgert and discovered an enormous weapons cache and a hit list of local government and law enforcement officials.

Eventually a group of community members said "enough" and began actively looking for ways to engage in productive and respectful dialogue. In documenting this positive response, as well as expressions of frustration and anger, The Fire Next Time provides a ray of hope that communities can reframe conflicts and a spark that educators can use to help students think more deeply about the impact of language and the responsibilities inherent in the right to free speech.

POV documentaries can be recorded off-the-air and used for educational purposes for up to one year from the initial broadcast. In addition, POV offers a lending library of DVDs that you can borrow anytime during the school year — FOR FREE! Please visit our Film Library to find other films suitable for classroom use or to make this film a part of your school's permanent collection.


In this lesson, students will:

  • Know the difference between protected and prohibited speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment.
  • Understand why free speech is essential to a democracy.
  • Consider how best to deal with speech they find offensive.
  • See how speech can escalate or de-escalate a conflict.
  • Craft a speech code for their school.


SUBJECT AREAS: Civics, Conflict Resolution, Diversity / Multicultural Education, Government, Law, Media Literacy, Social Studies, Sociology


  • 1 handout and 1 worksheet for each student (downloadable in the PDF)
  • Copy of The Fire Next Time and the equipment on which to play it

The minimum time needed is three class periods, one for preparation, one for viewing the film, and one for follow-up. However, each of these could take several class periods depending on how you choose to do the activity.


Trailer: The Fire Next Time (length: 00:30)

Get a sense of this film from the 30-second preview forThe Fire Next Time. Clips not available online. Use clip from DVD copy of the film, if available.

Show the film. For full context, it is recommended that the entire film be shown. If that is not possible, show the scenes involving:

  • The radio station (7:55; 17:24; 23:40; 25:15; 27:37; 30:15; 43:39; 44:20; 45:18)
  • High school students (9:10; 26:38; 30:36; 48:05)
  • The community meeting in response to escalating tensions (10:58; 16:50; 28:06; 39:11; 45:51).
  • Project 7 (5:12)
  • The burning swastika (13:30)


In January, 2005 the James S. and John L. Knight Foundation released a study titled, "Future of the First Amendment." One of the study's key findings was that "students are less likely than adults to think that people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions or newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories."

Given that this attitude directly contradicts rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, the Knight Foundation concluded that there was a great need for high schools to increase the prominence of teaching about free speech. This lesson provides an opportunity to do just that.

The Fire Next Time provides an excellent opportunity to help students think more deeply about free speech because it shows both provocative speech and its consequences as it tracks rising tensions in a real community. None of the speech in The Fire Next Time was prosecuted, but legal scholars might reasonably debate whether or not some of it should have been.

Legal Issues

The more you know about the history of court decisions related to free speech, the easier it will be for you to lead discussions. Looking at the following cases might be especially helpful in preparing:

  • Abrams v. United States (1919) - Defined the line between sedition and permitted speech against the government.
  • Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942) - Defined "fighting words." A portion of the decision in this case is included on the handout for this lesson.
  • Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) - Found that students had the right to protest the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands to school. It is a key case in determining what speech rights students have and what kinds of expression schools have a right to curtail.
  • R.A.V. v. Minnesota (1992) - Found that it was okay to burn a cross if it was a general expression of political views, but not if it was intended to intimidate specific individuals.

Note: The activity in this lesson asks students to engage in discussion about topics that may be emotional. Prior to beginning, you may want to review basic ground rules for dialogue (e.g., no interrupting, no name-calling, speaking in the first person rather than generalizing for others, etc.).


  1. Ask students what they know about the First Amendment's protection of free speech. What kinds of speech are protected and what kinds of speech are prohibited?
  2. Using the "Freedom of Speech" handout, review what the actual amendment says. Be sure that everyone understands the commentary from the two Supreme Court Justices. Especially underscore the notion that political speech is interpreted as being a key to democracy and therefore is highly protected, but speech that is deemed intentionally harmful is generally not protected. End the discussion by asking: "So what happens when speech is both political and harmful?"
  3. Tell students that the class is going to watch the film, "The Fire Next Time," that will help them explore that question. In preparation for viewing, review the types of speech listed on the worksheet and instruct students to use the worksheet as they watch.
    Teachers wishing to emphasize knowledge of the law can find more detailed and technical definitions of terms at a number of websites, e.g., Law.

  4. Show the film. For full context, it is recommended that the entire film be shown. If that is not possible, show the scenes involving:
    • The radio station (7:55; 17:24; 23:40; 25:15; 27:37; 30:15; 43:39; 44:20; 45:18)
    • High school students (9:10; 26:38; 30:36; 48:05)
    • The community meeting in response to escalating tensions (10:58; 16:50; 28:06; 39:11; 45:51).
    • Project 7 (5:12)
    • The burning swastika (13:30)
  5. Following the film, ask students to share with one another the notes they made on their worksheets. Encourage students to explore any disagreements over whether a specific expression should be protected as political speech or prosecuted as prohibited speech. Discuss why free speech is important to a democracy.
  6. Look again at speech that students found problematic. Rather than asking whether or not it was legal, ask whether or not it was helpful in addressing the problems that most concerned the speakers. Discuss the difference between speech that is legal and speech that is responsible. You also might explore whether or not people working in media have obligations that differ from other individuals. If so, why might media speech be treated differently?
  7. Before moving on to the lesson's assessment activity, let the class brainstorm ways that they might productively deal with speech that they find offensive but that is not illegal.


Based on what they have learned about what is legal and the potential impact of hate speech, assign each student to write a speech policy section for your school's student handbook. Be sure they include responsibilities of "speakers" as well as rights.

As a follow up, you may want to arrange for students to meet with administrators, student leaders, teachers, school board members, and community members to discuss their proposed policy and help build the consensus needed to adopt it.


Note: The handout and worksheet are available in the lesson plan PDF


Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The following is a passage from Justice Frank Murphy's majority opinion in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942): "Allowing the broadest scope to the language and purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment, it is well understood that the right of free speech is not absolute at all times and under all circumstances. There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which has never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or 'fighting' words -- those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality. 'Resort to epithets or personal abuse is not in any proper sense communication of information or opinion safeguarded by the Constitution, and its punishment as a criminal act would raise no question under that instrument.' Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 309 , 310 S., 60 S.Ct. 900, 906..."

"Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us."
— Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas 1953


As you view The Fire Next Time, jot down any instances you see of speech that you think is prohibited by law. Indicate which kind of prohibited speech it is by noting the instance in the appropriate corresponding box.

Categories of Prohibited Public Speech

Speech that impugns a person's reputation resulting in demonstrable harm, especially (but not exclusively) financial harm. Penalties are civil rather than criminal.


Extreme or outrageous speech intended specifically to cause an individual or group distress. Usually a civil rather than criminal matter.

Speech that is intended to intimidate. This would include bullying and specific believable threats of physical harm. An offhand angry remark like "I could kill her" would not count, but saying, "I will kill you" to someone who believes that you have the will and means to do so would count. This is usually a criminal matter.

Words that are specifically intended to provoke an immediate reaction that would constitute a breach of the peace. Just saying something that might upset someone, such as calling them a name, generally does not rise to the legal level of "fighting words." This can be a criminal matter, but is rarely prosecuted.

Words intended to provoke others to commit violence. The words must present a clear and imminent (present) danger. A general comment like "people who provide abortions should be stopped" would not be considered incitement, but a leader exhorting believers to carry out divine will by carrying out a death sentence for abortion providers might be considered incitement. Another version of incitement would cover the proverbial "shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater", i.e., words intended to cause mayhem.


Words intended to demean or create a hostile environment. In this instance, speech is interpreted not as speech, but as action. This is the basis for campus and workplace speech codes, where those in charge have a duty to create a safe environment.

Words deemed to be pornographic or against community standards. This might include using swear words at a circus with lots of young children around, but would not include the same words used at a bar.

Write down any instances of speech that you think is prohibited that don't seem to fit into any of the categories above.


  • Assign groups of students to listen to various talk radio programs popular in your area and evaluate them in terms of whether they make a positive or negative contribution to the community. Let them try to call in and report on their experience. What do they learn about how these programs are constructed? For examples of possible responses to hate radio, students might look at FAIR's (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a progressive media watchdog group) Challenging Hate Radio: A Guide for Activists, available on their website: Fair
  • Invite a representative from the ACLU to your class to talk about the kinds of speech they defend and their vision of the consequences of not defending controversial or reprehensible speech. Ask students why it might be important to defend speech we don't like and what would happen if no lawyer was willing to defend such speech.
  • Invite students to make their own radio show exploring an issue relevant to your community.


The First Amendment Center - A joint project of the Freedom Forum / Newseum and Vanderbilt University's Institute for Public Policy Studies. Its website includes easy-to-follow summaries, as well as FAQs and relevant case citations. Click on "Speech" from the home page to find information on K-12 student speech as well as issues around the development of speech codes on college campuses.

The Legal Information Institute - The Legal Information Institute provides a handy one-stop list of U.S. Supreme Court decisions on cases involving freedom of speech.

Tolerance - This links to an article by journalist Ken Olsen, who uses KGEZ (the station featured in The Fire Next Time) to talk about the impact of hate radio.



Standard 8, Benchmark 5 - Knows opposing positions on current issues involving constitutional protection of individual rights such as limits on speech, including hate speech

Standard 14 - Understands issues concerning the disparities between ideals and reality in American political and social life

  1. Understands the importance of established ideals in political life and why Americans should insist that current practices constantly be compared with these ideals.

Language Arts

Standard 8 - Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes

  1. Uses a variety of strategies to enhance listening comprehension (e.g., focuses attention on message, monitors message for clarity and understanding, asks relevant questions, provides verbal and nonverbal feedback, notes cues such as change of pace or particular words that indicate a new point is about to be made; uses abbreviation system to record information quickly; selects and organizes essential information)

Source: McCrel (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning)