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In the United States, the issue of protected speech is primarily addressed in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. The amendment does not assign any valuation to different kinds of speech; rather, it guarantees the right to express opinions freely.
In the more than two hundred years since the First Amendment was adopted, the kinds of speech it covers have been addressed in response to new forms of media and potentially damaging communication. Today there are many types of “speech”—including online usage, photography, and film—that did not exist in the late 18th century. The types that are not protected basically fall into nine categories: Obscenity, fighting words, defamation (which includes libel and slander), child pornography, perjury, blackmail, incitement to imminent lawless action, true threats, and solicitations to commit crimes. While there is widespread debate, many people advocate including treason, when committed verbally, on the list. Another unprotected category is plagiarism of copyrighted material.
When there are disagreements about free speech so severe that they generate legal action, a variety of processes may be involved in determining whether or not an individual’s or group’s rights have been respected. If the situation cannot be resolved at the level at which a challenge was initiated, it will be addressed by a higher court. Over the years, a number of landmark cases have been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
One notable case involving freedom of expression as an aspect of freedom of speech is Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, (1969). The Supreme Court ruled that the school violated the students’ rights by censoring “non-disruptive, passive, symbolic speech” when they suspended students from school for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. Two students who sued, John Tinker and Christopher Eckhardt, were in high school, and the other, Mary Beth Tinker was junior high school.