Simona Chiose outlines the controversy over UBC’s recent freedom-of-expression statement, relating it to the polarizing politics of recent years.

Getting Started

Appropriate Subject Area(s):

Social studies, current events, history

Key Questions to Explore:

  • What kinds of limitations, if any, should be applied to freedom of expression in our democracy?

New Terminology:

Dissemination, provost, primacy, neuroethics

Materials Needed:

Globe article, the Internet

Study and Discussion Activity

Introduction to lesson and task:

When a university refuses to allow a person to fulfill a public speaking engagement because the views held are too incendiary or are disrespectful of minorities, for example, opponents claim this illegally curbs the speaker’s right to freedom of expression. On other occasions, critics rail against political correctness when they are accused of using language or terms that some or many people find offensive and, in some cases, that can affect their freedom or well-being.

Students can benefit from a short lesson that asks them to consider the ramifications of limiting freedom of expression, and to weigh these against the possible harms that can result from the expression of ideas. Students will work in groups on a short assignment that poses several scenarios, and asks them to adjudicate the controversy. They will present their views orally in class.

Action (lesson plan and task):

  • Pose the following scenario to your students: You walk by a group of fellow students. One of them is addressing a person from a minority group, saying, “You don’t belong here. Your kind only lives on welfare paid for by our taxes!” When confronted, the student says, “I have a right to freedom of expression. I can say whatever I want. This is a democracy!” Ask students what they think of this.
  • After a short discussion, refer to the article, attached, and read this selection: “When speech moves to attacks that can make some groups or individuals feel silenced, it becomes inappropriate, [UBC] argues. ‘Freedom of expression is, however, one of a number of rights and freedoms each of us has. One person’s freedom of expression cannot be allowed to trample the freedom of others.’” Ask students to imagine a scenario in which the expression of words can limit another’s freedom. Discuss. Ask: What other rights might conflict with freedom of expression? (The right to security of our person, for example, which can be affected if someone whips up anger against a group or culture).

Organize students into groups, and task them with adjudicating the following scenarios.

Task Sheet

  • Read each of the two scenarios, below, aloud to your group and see if you can achieve consensus on an answer to the questions that follow. Be prepared to give an oral report of your answers to the class.
  • A student confronts a Muslim student: “You people are all terrorists. You should all be locked up.”
    • Does this person have a right to say this?
    • If so, if the other student is then pushed and shoved by other students because of what was said, does the speaker share responsibility for those actions?
    • Does the person being spoken to have a right to feel safe in school?
    • Is that right being denied here?
    • What would you say to the speaker?
  • A student says, “Why do I have to say ‘differently-abled,’ or, ‘Indigenous,’ or ‘Black’? This is just political correctness. I should be able to call people whatever I want to call them.”
    • Does the person have a right to call people whatever he or she wants to?
    • Does the person or persons being addressed this way have a right to demand that they are addressed as they prefer to be addressed?
    • How do you understand the term ‘politically correct’?
    • Is it negative or positive? Explain.
  • Do you agree with the statement, “One person’s freedom of expression cannot be allowed to trample the freedom of others”? Give reasons.

Consolidation of Learning:

  • When students have finished their worksheets, engage them in a general discussion about their answers to the findings. Poll students to see if any changed their minds as a result of the exercise.
Success and Additional Learning

Success Criteria:

  • Students can outline issues concerning limitations of freedom of expression.

Confirming Activity:

  • Students report on current news about campus bans on speakers, or similar events.