January 2015

In this lesson students will:

  • Consider how different societies define freedom of expression.
  • Analyze historical sources that reveal contrasting views on freedom of expression in the case of Skokie, Illinois, where a Nazi group attempted to demonstrate in the 1970s.
  • Explore the current free speech controversy in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

Required Reading

Students should have read Introduction: What are Human Rights? and Freedom of Expression in Skokie, Illinois—A Case Study in Human Rights.


Note: Teaching about these charged and challenging topics may require special sensitivity, and discussions may be particularly intense for some students. Being prepared to deal with these complex issues can help ensure that the activity is enriching and rewarding.

In the Classroom

1. Introduction

Begin class by asking students if they have ever experienced limits on their expression. Explain that this could include restrictions on what they say, write, or even wear. How did this make them feel? Do they believe that the restrictions made sense and were fair?

Review the previous night’s reading with students. What are human rights? Why is it difficult to define and protect them? How does the case of Skokie, Illinois illustrate the complexity of the right to free expression? Do students think that there are circumstances in which expression should be limited? Why?

2. Exploring a Historical Controversy

Divide the class into groups of three to four students. Give each student a copy of Sources—Skokie, Illinois, 1977 and each group a copy of Graphic Organizer—Contrasting Views on Human Rights. Tell students to read the instructions on the graphic organizer before reading the sources.

As they read, students may find it useful to underline sections or phrases in the sources that express opinions on the central question included in the graphic organizer. After they have finished reading, students should work with their groups to fill out the chart. They should list information presented in the primary sources as well as information from last night’s reading.

3. Large Group Discussion

After about fifteen minutes, bring students back to the large group setting. Call on groups to describe the range of views expressed in the news excerpts. What were the major arguments in favor of allowing the march in Skokie? What were the arguments against allowing the march to take place?

4. Exploring a Current Controversy

Tell students that while the Skokie controversy took place almost forty years ago in the United States, people around the world continue to debate questions about freedom of expression. Ask students if they have heard about the recent attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine headquarters in France.

Distribute Sources—Paris, France, 2015 and read the introductory paragraphs as a class. Distribute another copy of Graphic Organizer—Contrasting Views on Human Rights. Break students into groups and instruct them to read through the sources and fill in the organizer.

Note: You may wish to define some of the challenging vocabulary that students will encounter in the sources, such as “Islamophobia,” “sacrilegious,” and “ideology.” You also may prefer to select only a few of the sources to distribute to each group, or extend the activity into a second class period to allow more time to read the sources.

5. Concluding Discussion

After about twenty minutes, bring students back to the large group setting. Call on groups to describe the range of views expressed in the news excerpts. What were the main arguments in favor of limiting the French magazine’s right to publish the cartoons? What were the arguments of those who supported the magazine’s right to publish the cartoons?

Ask students to look at the information provided at the top of each article on the author and/or news source. How might the origin of the newspapers or the nationalities of the authors and those quoted in the articles influence the perspectives conveyed in the sources? How has the French government and justice system responded to the attacks? Do students believe it is a double standard for France to arrest those who voice support for terrorism?

Do students see any similarities between the two case studies of Skokie and Paris? What are some of the important differences between the two?

Why do students think that freedom of expression is such a highly contested issue? What are students’ opinions on when freedom of speech should be allowed, and when, if ever, censorship is justified?

Extra Challenge

Developing Visual Aids—Challenge students to create posters that demonstrate the controversy surrounding freedom of expression. Groups may wish to use drawings, slogans, or a political cartoon to get the message across. They should think of their posters as a tool to help teach their classmates and others about the different arguments on the issue that have been raised by the two case studies. As an alternative, students may write an editorial for their school newspaper voicing their views on the subject.

Additional Resources

Note: This activity was excerpted and modified from the Choices Program’s full-length curriculum, Competing Visions of Human Rights: Questions for U.S. Policy.

‘Cartoonists for Peace’ respond defiantly to Paris Terrorists
Informed Comment

Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance becomes bestseller following Paris attacks
The Guardian

Arab cartoonists pen their response to Charlie Hebdo affair
The Guardian

Charlie Hebdo, the pope and what to do with the freedom to give gratuitous offence
The Guardian

Civil Liberties vs. Terrorism: What Are We Willing to Give Up?
Global Voices

Liberty or Security: Or can France have both?
The Local

Photo Credit: photograpix on Flickr

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