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What exactly is offensive speech? Take this quiz to find out!

1. Speech that is offensive can never be restricted.
Incorrect. The First Amendment gives broad protection to speech, but it does not give a blanket protection for every single form of speech.
Correct! Otherwise, the rest of this quiz would be pointless. Let’s explore.
2. In a First Amendment case, the Supreme Court of the United States considered whether a man could be convicted for the crime of disturbing the peace after he wore a jacket in a courthouse that had a political message that included the f-word in big, bold letters. Do you think the Court restricted this form of offensive speech or allowed the speech?
Incorrect. The Court said that allowing the government to censor speech in cases like this would give the government an excuse to censor speech that it did not agree with.
Correct! The Court said that the use of the word could be banned if it were directed at an individual, but that in this case, no one could reasonably believe that the four-letter word was directed specifically at them. Additionally, the political nature of the speech provided the speaker more protection. So, the Court found that the offensive speech here was protected by the First Amendment.
3. A governmental agency, such as the Patent and Trademark Office, can deny someone the use of specific terms that the agency finds to be offensive. For example, the agency finds a new company’s name to be racially offensive. The agency can then refuse to register the company’s offensive name as a trademark.
Incorrect. The governmental agency cannot censor speech based on content, and to deny a company the right to use a name because the government finds it to be offensive would be a content-based restriction.
Correct! There was even a Supreme Court of the United States case that decided a very similar issue. The Supreme Court found that denying the name, just because it may be offensive, violates the First Amendment.
4. Under which of the following situations would offensive speech NOT be protected.
Incorrect. The First Amendment does not protect the listener from having their feelings hurt.
Incorrect. The First Amendment does not protect the listener from being embarrassed.
Correct! If the offensive speech causes the listener to respond with violence, the offensive speech would be considered “fighting words,” which is not protected under the First Amendment.
Incorrect. The First Amendment does not protect the listener from hearing shocking speech.
5. A website can censor speech that it finds to be offensive.
Correct! Many websites that allow users to post comments have community guidelines. If a comment is so offensive that it violates these guidelines, the website is within its rights to remove the offensive comment. While this is a restriction on speech, the user likely agreed to these terms of service. On top of that, the First Amendment protects people from censorship or punishment by the government, and social media sites are not the government.
Incorrect. Many websites require users to sign an agreement to follow the rules set by the website. A lot of times, these rules are aimed at keeping the online environment civil and respectful. A violation of the rules can be censored.
6. Offensive speech that is prohibited in one location may be permitted in another location.
Correct! This is because the government can impose time, place, and manner restrictions on speech. It allows, for example, Saturday Night Live to say things that a morning news cast would not be able to say because SNL is broadcast late at night when young children would not be watching.
Incorrect. The government can regulate the times, places, and manners of delivery of speech to do things like protect children, keep parks clean for the public, keep foot traffic moving in airport terminals, etc. But the time-place-manner restrictions cannot target the content of the speech.
7. A social media user comments on the Governor’s official social media page. In three short sentences, the comment uses ten instances of profane language criticizing the Governor’s recent Executive Order for the state. Can the offensive speech be censored by the Governor? For example, can the Governor delete the user’s comment?
Incorrect. Because the Governor uses the social media page as an official line of communication with the residents of the state, the offensive comment is a criticism of the government. Political speech receives the highest level of protection.
Correct! In this instance, the Governor’s official social media page is used as a public forum. To remove the offensive comment would be a content-based restriction on speech, which is not allowed under the First Amendment. Note, however, that a comment may still be censored or flagged if it violates the websites community standard guidelines.
8. Speech that is so offensive that it would shock almost any listener can be censored for being obscene. For example, a video game that depicts extremely graphic, gory, and violent content and has no political, scientific, artistic, or literary value.
Incorrect. While there is no clear definition of what speech is obscene, obscenity is often categorized as speech appealing to indecent interests, i.e. sexual conduct, with no political, scientific, artistic, or literary value. Courts look to whether the speech offends community standards which is typically decided state by state, so what is considered obscene in Alabama may not be considered obscene in California.
Correct! Obscene speech is not protected by the First Amendment. However, the Court has said that “the obscenity exception to the First Amendment does not cover whatever a legislature finds shocking, but only depictions of sexual conduct.” So, violent video games may be shocking to some, but that doesn’t make them obscene.