Exploring Freedom of Speech Issues


Martha J. Kosa

Department of Computer Science

Tennessee Technological University

Box 5101

Cookeville, TN 38505

Knowledge/skills/attitudes to be developed (behavioral objectives):

Students should develop some basic knowledge about issues related to freedom of speech/expression and should think about how existing laws may be inadequate as technology changes.

Goals for the activity:

This activity has two goals. One is to understand basic terms and laws related to freedom of speech. The other is to get students to explore whether their "gut" reactions to a particular incident will change as they obtain more information.


The thrust of this assignment is to read and think carefully about an incident in which a California couple was arrested and convicted for distributing pornographic pictures and text in Tennessee via a BBS. The American Civil Liberties Union asserts that it "is believed to be the first case involving the cross-country prosecution and conviction of computer bulletin board operators."

Background/materials needed to complete the assignment:

Students need to be given the statement of facts about this incident. They also need to know how to use a Web browser and a search engine to find out more about the resolution of the case.


1. the "Statement of Facts" section and the full text of the applicable federal law from the U.S. Code (18 USC 1465), from EFF's Virtual Amicus Brief page.

2. Worksheets such as those attached.

3. access to a Web browser.


The first reading (on the first worksheet) is very short. Give the first worksheet to the students and 5-10 minutes to complete it. For each of the questions, call on a student and ask if there are any different responses afterward. The class could also be divided into groups to answer the questions. The second reading (material from EFF's Virtual Amicus Brief page) is short, but longer than the first reading. The second worksheet will take the students longer to complete, and it may require that the students search on the Web for some of the answers. We suggest that the whole activity start towards the end of the class period. The students will complete the second worksheet outside of class. The questions will be discussed during the next class period.

Time required:

This activity will generally take approximately one hour of class time. The average student's time for completing the reading and worksheet prior to class should fall in the range between 1 and 2 hours.


Author contact information:

Department of Computer Science; Tennessee Technological University; Box 5101; Cookeville, TN 38505


Additional Remarks: This activity was developed at an NSF USF workshop on teaching ethics and computing. It was modeled after activities designed by Professor Kevin Bowyer at the University of South Florida. The case is mentioned in passing, without identifying the defendants, in Sara Baase's text A Gift of Fire: Social, Legal, and Ethical Issues in Computing (Prentice Hall, 1997). This activity could lead to further discussion about the Communications Decency Act.

Date: 6 August 1998.

Sample "Ethics and Computing" Worksheet

Freedom of Speech, part 1


Read the summary of the case and answer the following questions.


Brief synopsis: A couple owning a business is arrested and charged with selling pornography to another adult. Another person told the purchaser about the business. The business does not sell pornography to underage customers.


1. Why do you think the couple was arrested?





2. What is an appropriate punishment for the couple?





3. Substitute the word "cocaine" for "pornography" in the above case. How do your answers to the previous questions change?





Sample "Ethics and Computing" Worksheet -

Freedom of Speech, part 2


Read the page describing the facts of the case and the associated federal law, and answer the following questions. You may need to use your favorite Web browser and search engine to complete the questions.


1. What is a community?





2. Can one person be involved in multiple communities? Explain.





3. Who should determine what is acceptable in a given community?





4. Do communities exist on the Internet? Explain.





5. What is the significance of the Miller v. California Supreme Court case?





6. What is freedom of speech?





7. What is supposed to guarantee freedom of speech in the United States?






8. Does freedom of speech give you the right to say whatever you want, whenever you want to say it? Why or why not?





9. Is freedom of speech guaranteed everywhere in the world? If not, describe a violating instance.





10. Who were the victims of the Thomases' crime?





11. What was the punishment received by Robert and Carleen Thomas?





12. Do you believe the punishment was fair to them? Why or why not?





13. What happened to the Thomases after the initial conviction?





Last updated 98/08/13
© Martha J. Kosa, 1998.

Developed at the NSF Workshop on Teaching Ethics and Computing, University of South Florida, August 1998, Grant No. DUE 95-52792