What was the Cost of Free Speech?


What was the Cost of Free Speech?


Washington State Library, Office of the Secretary of State

Grade Levels


In this focused inquiry, students investigate the question: What was the cost of free speech?

Students engage in this inquiry by first studying an illustration from the collection held at the Washington State Historical Society, “The Shame of Spokane.”

Students will then read two different accounts of the free speech fight to build background knowledge about the topic.

Students should have some background about turn of the 20th century labor issues, as well as a beginning knowledge of capitalism and socialism.

Main source for this inquiry: Woirol, G. R. (Ed.). (April, 1986). Two Letters on the Spokane Free Speech Fight. Pacific Northwest Quarterly, 68-71.

Lesson Objectives

1. Students will know and understand the ways in which people were treated after being arrested for participating in the Spokane Free Speech Fight of 1910.

2. Students will craft an argument that answers the compelling question, What was the cost of free speech?

Source Materials

Featured Sources:

  • Source #1: Background Essay
  • Source #2: Handbill, The Shame of Spokane
  • Source #3: Two Letters from Participants in the Spokane Free Speech Fight


Washington State Social Studies Standards:

SSS1.6-8.1 Analyze positions and evidence supporting an issue or an event.

SSS3.6-8.1 Engage in discussion, analyzing multiple viewpoints on public issues.

H1.6-8.4 Analyze a major historical event and how it is represented on timelines from different cultural perspectives, including those of indigenous people.

H2.6-8.2 Explain and analyze how individuals and movements have shaped Washington state history since statehood.


Focused Inquiry

Compelling Question:
What was the cost of free speech?

Staging the Question:

  • Remind students that the first Amendment of the United States Constitution says, 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.

  • Ask students to provide examples of the bolded portions of the text, and ask them to provide examples of how they see these rights happening in the United States today.

  • Provide students time to process, turn and talk, and share out with the class.

  • Share with students: In this lesson/inquiry, you will be learning about one of the first times in the history of the United States that people gathered to protest and were silenced and put in jail for their protest. It “is considered one of the most significant battles to protect freedom of speech in American history” (HistoryLink).

Vocabulary to consider front-loading:

Union, IWW (Wobblies), employment agency, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, ordinance, capitalism, socialism, strike

Supporting Question:

How were people treated who were arrested for protesting the free speech ban?

Formative Performance Tasks:

Step 1: Read Source #1 with students, which will provide a bit more background knowledge about the reasons for the Spokane Free Speech Fight (if needed).

Step 2: Students do a visual analysis of a handbill from 1909 where they will notice/wonder with the suggested questions on the notes sheet. Share with students the following text that accompanies the handbill from the Washington State Historical Society website:

 One page illustrated with a drawing of the Liberty Bell labeled Spirit of 1776 next to a policeman's helmet superimposed over a billy club labeled Spirit of 1909. The First Amendment of the Constitution is quoted in the lower right corner. Portion apparently trimmed from a larger broadside referring to the free speech fight in Spokane, WA, in November, 1909. The Spokane City Council had passed an ordinance banning speaking on the streets. The Industrial Workers of the World began a civil disobedience campaign that resulted in the arrest and jailing of I.W.W. members, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

Step 3: Tell students that they are about to read two letters written by men who were arrested and jailed because they took part in the Free Speech Fight.

  1. Predict: How do you think these men were treated? Turn and talk to a partner.

  2. Have students read and annotate the texts with the supporting question in mind. Ensure that students read the note about the text to ensure they understand the sources of the letters.

Have students complete the graphic organizer and craft their argument.


Using facts from the featured sources and your study of the first Amendment, write a claim that answers the compelling question: What was the cost of free speech? Support the claim with evidence from sources as well as reasoning that connects the evidence to the claim.

Taking Informed Action:

Students can research any unanswered questions. Students can read about current protests that center around free speech and other civil rights. Students will develop their own poem/song/art that represents the struggles people have faced when fighting for free speech rights and share it with their school/community.

The Cost of Free Speech.pdf