Guest Blogger

Educating Young Children on the Importance of Freedom of Speech

The right to freedom of speech is established in the First Amendment because it is one of the most important freedoms we value in the United States. Freedom of speech gives us the right to use our voices in countless ways – from signing a petition, to writing a poem or creating a piece of art, to voting and attending a protest, to practicing a religious tradition. Like learning the ABC’s to build words for communicating, learning about the First Amendment and freedom of speech is a building block we can use to empower young voices.

The First Amendment provides the foundation for freedom of speech in all its forms – including writing, speaking and reading. But even with the First Amendment in place, books have been banned, ideas are sometimes silenced, and speech has been restricted. Librarians exist to share ideas and provide information that spans across a broad spectrum of areas and viewpoints. The internet does this, too, but in a way, the internet is kind of “a library with no adult supervision”- yes, it can provide access to anything, but there are no safeguards in place to separate the true from the untrue, the fake news from the real news. Librarians organize, catalog, and circulate published information that will best inform and support our community. Librarians can play an important role in navigating through the noise, providing a safe and inclusive space for free speech and helping young children find their voices without fear of encountering judgment, bullying or hate. Story time can provide great opportunities to build inclusive and empowering spaces.

As children’s librarians, we are always trying to showcase the importance and meaning of words on the page (or screen, as the pandemic has moved us more towards digital story times). We can take any topic and turn it into a story time lesson, but free speech is often a theme that is overlooked. Like many other big topics, it can be hard for us to find the right language to communicate this to our little ones, however, as Jessica and her father Sandy teach kids in the children’s book Your Voice is Your Superpower, using their voices makes them superheroes, and who doesn’t want to be a superhero? 

The Hoboken Children’s Library community recently hosted an author visit which showed teaching children the First Amendment and the importance of freedom of speech doesn’t have to be complicated — it is simply about using your voice. And while there aren’t many other books that specifically teach the First Amendment to children, the concept can be tied into a number of story times about bullying, self-confidence, and individuality in an effort to empower children, and reinforce the notion that they can help stand up for what they believe.

Here are some ways librarians can play an active role in educating children about freedom of speech, free expression and encouraging them to use their voices and respect the voices of others:

  1. Offer a diverse and up to date variety of books about expression, freedom and communication in your catalogues. Highlight this collection of books with creative displays and reading recommendation flyers in the library.
  2. Talk with young readers about the various ways they can use their voices to express their thoughts, feelings and beliefs– providing examples with books, poems, artwork and songs. Feature example books and stories that highlight figures who have set great examples of using their voices to create change and stand up for what they believe in. Some timely historic examples could be books about Ruth Bader Ginbsurg and John Lewis. The Brooklyn Public Library has some recommendations for books on Justice Ginsburg and the Chicago Public Library has some great suggestions for books celebrating the life and civil rights work of John Lewis.
  3. Schedule interactive readings and discussions with authors and illustrators to talk about ways to express themselves, discuss what it means to them and how they like to use their voices. 
  4. Encourage young children to share the product they create exercising their right to free speech and expression (in the form of artwork, posters, poetry, other writings) and display that work in your libraries (and on social media if the children and parent grant permission).
  5. Schedule events with leaders in your community who can engage with young children about issues in the community that affect them – diversity, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQI rights, climate change and recycling, to name a few.
  6. Consider offering children the opportunity to participate in safe, socially-distanced gatherings at (outside) your library on topics they care about.
  7. Partner with local schools and teachers to provide more resources and support to students, teachers, and parents/caregivers. 
  8. Think about ways we can talk to young readers about how free speech means not just speaking but also listening. Encourage children to be open to new ideas, new viewpoints, new authors, new subject matter.

Today’s guest bloggers are Ashley Hoffman and Jessica Bohrer. Ashley Hoffman is a Hoboken resident and Children’s Librarian at the Hoboken Public Library. Jessica Bohrer is Vice President and Editorial Counsel in the newsroom at Forbes, an advocate for freedom of speech and a free press, and Co-Author of Your Voice Is Your Superpower: A Beginner’s Guide to Freedom of Speech (and the First Amendment).

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

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