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The Limits of Freedom of Speech


Mike Tribe
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I've been prompted to think quite a bit about this just recently by some of the posts I've been reading.

There has been some recent activity regarding Holocaust denial in which the case of a denier jailed in Canada was raised. John S. defended his right to free speech, and my "gut reaction" was to agree wholeheartedly. "I disagree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it."

This is difficult when the views being expressed are, to say the least, obnoxious, but, in recent years, an organization with as excellent "liberal credentials" as the ACLU has even gone so far as to help with the legal defence of KKK defendents.

Are there **any** circumstances in which it would be legitimate to restrict so fundamental a right? And to what extent should this "freedom of speech" be extended to teachers in their classrooms?

Some of the teachers who regularly post on the forum hold strong political beliefs -- I do myself -- and some have even said that it is the role of the teacher to act as a motor for social and political change. Are we prepared to extend such freedom to push their beliefs in the classroom to members of the BNP or to radical Islamic fundamentalists, or only to teachers who hold "mainstream" views? What about "creationist" science teachers? Should they be allowed to put forward their views in the classroom in the name of free expression?

I don't know the answers to these questions...

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Edited by Andy Walker
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Mike,

I think we need to seperate the right of every individual to free speech from an employer's right to demand a teacher adhere to a particular curriculum. This may sound surprising coming from me, but I don't believe, for instance, that Ernst Zundel, or any other teacher, should be indoctrinating students with their own agenda. Zundel wasn't sent to prison for that this time (I believe he was charged with publishing and distributing holocaust "denial" material), but that was the reason he first came under scrutiny. While I can recognize that a textbook or a curriculum can't reflect the views of a very small minority (revisionists or "deniers"), that is a seperate issue from the right of individuals or groups to publish their views, use public facilities for rallies, etc.

In the case of the JFK assassination, however, we find that a clear majority of the people do reject the "official" story, while all textbooks and curriculum promote it. I think it would be perfectly appropriate for teachers who are covering the JFK assassination to go over the main points of controversy and to let students know that most people believe there was a conspiracy.

I think that all teachers need to be careful about injecting their own opinions into the curriculum. This doesn't change my strong opposition to laws against holocaust "deniers" or any other renegade thinkers, and being imprisoned for their upopular ideas.

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Certainly a hot topic these days with the whole "Churchill" controversy at the University of Colorado, etc.

I have to say that "majority opinion" is not a good standard to apply when deciding what is or is not appropriate to raise in the classroom. The "majority" may believe that there was some conspiracy to do away with JFK, and it may well be appropriate to question the "official story". However, the "majority" believes the creationist line about where we come from (in the USA, at least). Science isn't decided by majority vote, and I don't think history should be either.

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Thanks to whoever moved me to the correct place...

To move this on a bit: Last year, the imam of a mosque here in Spain was deported for publishing a leaflet announcing that men had the right to discipline their wives provided they used sticks less than a quarter or an inch thick and didn't leave visible marks. Was this a denial of the imam's freedom of speech?

Or the fatwa against Salman Rushdie?

You could make the case that one should be free to say anything which didn't endanger others, but that's a rather slippery slope upon which it is very difficult to draw a line (I love mixed metaphors!). For example, the gentleman who suggested on this forum that Canada was controlled by a secret Jewish clique might be considered to have been inciting race hatred. Should he have been silenced?

I've always been an unquestioning, visceral liberal, but in the modern world where extremists openly call over the internet for the killing of innocents whose only "crime" is that they hold different religious or political beliefs, I'm having a bit of a crisis of conscience...

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At a site called America's Debate we are presently debating whether our speech rights should be legally protected when it comes to things like publishing blogs.

The conservative view is that employers have complete rights in the area of hiring and firing and that while reprehensible, the episode of a woman being fired for refusing to pull apolitical sticker off of her car was within the rights of an employer.

On another thread we are debating whether an Ohio bill that gives a student bill of rights should be passed. Should students be protected from instructors who grade against them for not sharing their beliefs.

Free speech is a tricky area. I often find myself saying that freedom of speech is not the freedom to not be held responsible for the consequences of our words.

In a world where corporations have the powers of small nations, I think the employee (and the student) in the above examples should have certain protections. That firing should not be for reasons of free speech that are unrelated to the job. (I lost the student along the way.)

I believe that teachers ethically should not try to create a flock of students that share their political beliefs. That is going about things wrong, we should be trying to create free thinkers who have the skills to critical think for themselves. :ice

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Some of the teachers who regularly post on the forum hold strong political beliefs -- I do myself -- and some have even said that it is the role of the teacher to act as  a motor for social and political change. Are we prepared to extend such freedom to push their beliefs in the classroom to members of the BNP or to radical Islamic fundamentalists, or only to teachers who hold "mainstream" views? What about "creationist" science teachers? Should they be allowed to put forward their views in the classroom in the name of free expression?

I think we need to seperate the right of every individual to free speech from an employer's right to demand a teacher adhere to a particular curriculum. This may sound surprising coming from me, but I don't believe, for instance, that Ernst Zundel, or any other teacher, should be indoctrinating students with their own agenda…

I think that all teachers need to be careful about injecting their own opinions into the curriculum. This doesn't change my strong opposition to laws against holocaust "deniers" or any other renegade thinkers, and being imprisoned for their upopular ideas.

Mike poses and interesting philosophical question that is rarely asked in society. It also brings together issues that have been discussed on different threads over recent days.

For example, several teachers were having a debate about the role teachers play in developing nationalistic attitudes.

http://educationforum.ipbhost.com/index.php?showtopic=2885

Juan Carlos argued that we “need a European history curriculum to build up a certain European identity. An identity that is not based on myths, battles, victories or defeats, but in other values that stem from the best European tradition. We have to eliminate the old national histories built on remembering battles and wars, and, at the same time, we have to integrate the view of the new Europeans”.

I agreed with this view but others accused Juan Carlos and myself of using the classroom to promote certain political beliefs. Doug Belshaw, for example, argued that “to try and forge European harmony and co-operation by cutting pupils off from, or becoming extremely selective in one's teaching of, history is a very bad thing”.

Mike Tribe added:

Even if I agreed 100% with John's assessment of nationalism, I'm still not sure I'd agree that "it is our responsibility as educators to do what we can to bring an end to nationalism". It's our job as educators, I think, to present our students with all sides of the argument (whatever it is) and the evidence with which to evaluate the different approaches. If we've done our job well, then the students should, themselves, be able to come to a sound judgement regarding nationalism or any other -ism. Any other approach, it could be argued, comes closer to indoctrination than to education.

Mike raises the same issue as Don, implying that if a teacher has a political objective then he/she must be guilty of trying to indoctrinate their students.

First of all it has to be stated that all teachers have political objectives. In most cases, the political objectives of the teacher are shared by society at large. The teacher is therefore promoting the dominant ideology. As a result, these teachers are not seen as being “political”. However, those who are teaching against the dominant ideology, are automatically identified as being “political” and are often accused of trying to indoctrinate their pupils. Yet it is impossible for an individual teacher to indoctrinate pupils. Attempts to indoctrinate children in schools does take place. However, this is only when there is general agreement about the message that should be conveyed. For example, a belief that children should not be racist.

The idea that a teacher can be a neutral chairman is a myth. Does Mike really believe that: “It's our job as educators, I think, to present our students with all sides of the argument (whatever it is) and the evidence with which to evaluate the different approaches.” After all, that is not what he was arguing when discussing the teaching of the Holocaust.

http://educationforum.ipbhost.com/index.php?showtopic=3104

Would you be willing to present evidence in the classroom suggesting that Hitler might have been right in his views on Jews? Would you be happy about presenting KKK leaflets from the 1930s claiming that Afro-Americans were inferior to white people?

The evidence approach to history in the classroom is obviously a positive development. So also is the emphasis now placed on interpretations of the past. However, both these developments have been in themselves influenced by the dominant ideology. This in itself influences the subjects we look at and the questions that we pose of the evidence that is presented. We might present a wide variety of different sources on Nazi Germany but we know beforehand what kind of interpretation we want those students to end up with. I agree with that position. I would be horrified if I thought that anything that I did in the classroom might encourage a student to develop racist ideas.

Nazi Germany is an easy one because we are all in agreement about this topic. Other topics are far more complicated. Take for example, the bombing of civilian areas during war. For example, a discussion on this topic has been taking place here:

http://educationforum.ipbhost.com/index.php?showtopic=357

Jim Hudson, a history teacher from Texas, has argued that the dropping of the first nuclear bomb on Japan in 1945 was justified. This is a very complex issue and historians are deeply divided about the morality of this action.

Mike argues that the teacher should objectively present the evidence and allow the student to make up their own mind about the subject. I would argue that when compiling that evidence the teacher would be influenced by their own views on the subject. For example, a teacher who believed the dropping the nuclear bomb was justified would concentrate on selecting evidence that concerned the political aspects of the decision. Great emphasis would be placed on the lives of the Allied soldiers saved by the decision. The teacher who thought this decision was immoral would also use the same sources. However, they would make sure that there was several first-hand accounts on the personal impact that the bomb had on the Japanese people. A special focus would be on the impact it had on “innocent” children. Questions would be posed in order to get an emotional response from the students.

I would argue that in cases like this, the teacher will help to shape the response of the student to the subject material. That the political views of the teacher will influence the political views of the student. In many ways, this is more dangerous that the narrative approach to history. Looking back we can all agree that in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, students were indoctrinated into believing a certain ideology. We probably could agree that a similar thing went on when history teachers taught the British Empire at the end of the 19th century.

I definitely believe that the way we teach today is an improvement on what went on at the end of the 19th century. However, I think we would be fooling ourselves if we thought we had removed ideology from the classroom.

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Would you be willing to present evidence in the classroom suggesting that Hitler might have been right in his views on Jews? Would you be happy about presenting KKK leaflets from the 1930s claiming that Afro-Americans were inferior to white people?

John has gone right to the heart of the question. As he says, this raises some very difficult issues. Would I be "right" to expose sensitive and immature minds to Nazi of KKK propaganda? Or would it be better to excise it from any consideration of that period of history?

On balance, I think I would "be willing to present evidence in the classroom suggesting that Hitler might have been right in his views on Jews". In fact, on reflection, I can see some really good reasons for doing so:

1. How could my students come to grips with the attitudes of many Germans (a majority?) to the question. One of the most shocking things to me in the terrifying BBC documentary on the Holocaust were the interviews with concentration camp guards who defended themselves against attacks on their behavior not by "copping out" and pleading "obedience to orders" but by saying that what they were doing was completely justified and correct. And they were making these statements not back in the 1940's, but TODAY. Again, in "Nazis: a Warning from History", respectable middle-class German businessmen would make the most outrageously anti-semitic comments with no apparent embarrassment. How could ANYONE feel that way in the 1930's, let alone 60 years later? Presumably, because they bought the propaganda Hitler was selling them. Thus, this propaganda becomes an essential piece of evidence in understanding the period.

2. John and Andy both wrote during the recent "denial thread" that the evidence for the Holocaust was so overwhelming that no sane person without some sinister axe to grind could possibly challenge it, and they're absolutely right. Thus presentation of Nazi and KKK propaganda along with its refutation should enable any reasonably confident teacher to present a view which is MOST unbalanced -- it would HAVE to be since the evidence is itself skewed that way... I really don't think there's much danger that openness is going to convert a generation of school children into Nazis!

3. And that's another reason for confronting the evidence openly. If you don't, then intelligent and inquisitive students are going to ask why significant evidence is being concealed. Isn't that part of the attraction of the JFK Assassination thing? There has clearly been an attempt to "cover up" some of the evidence, so, obviously, people are going to ask why. Taken to its extreme by less intelligent people, you get the Morissette response that it must all be the result of an international jewish conspiracy to hide the truth...

4. Finally, if we only ever expose our students to views which we consider sound, how are they going to react when confronted with "unsound" views when they are outside of our care. One of the great things about the internet is that you can find a huge amount of material without very much expertise. I can search "Bismarck" and come up with over a million hits. On the other hand, this is also one of the problems of the internet. Some of the "hits" are totally worthless. You can find, for example, Sal Astucia's claims that Jimi Hendrix was killed by the FBI, that AIDS is a CIA plot, and that LBJ was a secret jew... We all know that things like that are the products of a , well, let's call it an "unconventional" mind. We know that his rantings are no more than that. But that's because we've spent years and years learning how to sift truth from fiction. Isn't it our job to show kids how to do the same thing? I've written before that I think this is one area in which teaching practice has fallen behind technological innovation. I just don't think we pay enough attention to teaching kids how to make these distinctions...

John makes an excellent point when he says that all teachers have a political agenda. Even the rejection of such an agenda is, in itself, a political statement. A teacher, as John says, can't just be a neutral referee. Students have a right, I think, to know "where we're coming from". But that's **after** we've presented them with as balanced a selection of evidence as we can manage.

Thus, when I'd show "Night and Fog" to my 9th Graders and spoken about the origins of central European anti-semitism, I had no compunction whatsoever in responding quite forcefully to anti-semitic remarks made by one of the students in class discussion. The kids certainly knew where I stood, but, on the other hand, I was quite glad that there was someone in the class who could put forward the alternative view...

John, however, doesn't address the question as to where the line should be drawn. I can see that it would be nice if all students finished high school having been convinced in history classes of the evils of xenophobia by progressive teachers, but are we going to allow similar freedom to propagate their views to bigots and racists? Of course not. But what about Christians such as Doug and me. Should we be allowed to prosletyze openly? What about the particular brand of Islam propagated in some religious schools? I don't think so. What about the "right" of a fundamentalist science teacher to teach creationism? Or of a Thatcherite to teach free market social doctrine?

Sorry, I just re-read what I wrote before and realized I've repeated myself boringly. Please ignore those bits....

Edited by mike tribe
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My college has been having interesting discussions regarding tenure. Some constituents regard tenure as an evil - allowing lazy, irresponsible professors to languish in a cushy job. Arguments about being able to "speak truth to power" are lost on them - they want to be able to run the place like a business.

I have a cordial disagreement with one of my colleagues about damn near everything - he is no fan of evolution and I'm an evolutionary biologist, he believes global warming is a plot by socialists wanting to disrupt capitialist economies and I think it's a real phenomenon, etc. Our students benefit directly and indirectly from these disagreements. One of the best classroom discussions I've ever had occurred when the two of us combined our Western Civilization and Culture sections and debated modern art in front of them. Many of my colleagues regard him as, shall I say, "unconventional" (although I think his opinions reflect the population more than my liberal colleagues). I would hate to see him (or me!) lose his (or my!) job because we held certain views.

We have a course in critical thinking here, which every student will now have to take. How like academics - to see a course as the solution to a problem! I think it's a good thing, but I don't hold any illusions about magically converting students to critical thinkers. I'm with Mike on this one - give objectivity your best shot, tell 'em where YOU stand and let the chips fall where they may.

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John, however, doesn't address the question as to where the line should be drawn. I can see that it would be nice if all students finished high school having been convinced in history classes of the evils of xenophobia by progressive teachers, but are we going to allow similar freedom to propagate their views to bigots and racists? Of course not. But what about Christians such as Doug and me. Should we be allowed to prosletyze openly? What about the particular brand of Islam propagated in some religious schools? I don't think so. What about the "right" of a fundamentalist science teacher to teach creationism? Or of a Thatcherite to teach free market social doctrine?

That is right. In my first post I was trying to establish an understanding of my approach to this subject. I was not trying to escape from this difficult question.

I have argued above that a teacher’s political or religious beliefs influences the way they teach. I have gone on to argue that this approach might well influence the attitudes and values of the students that they teach.

If I am right in this, people will no doubt be concerned by the activities of teachers who hold political and religious views different to their own. As I have said many times before, I am strongly opposed to the political views of fascists. Some have argued that teachers who are members of far right political parties should be removed from the profession.

I am personally opposed to this view. One reason for this is that I see this as persecution of people who hold minority political beliefs. Where do we stop with this. Should members of the far-left political groups also be removed from the profession? What about teachers who hold extremist religious views. For example, creationists. Should we start banning them as well.

But if we do adopt this policy of removing teachers from the profession who are members extreme right-wing parties, surely their reaction will be to leave that party. As I have argued, subversive teachers are likely to use sophisticated methods to get across their political views. It would be very difficult to prove this is what they are doing if they are not a member of any political party.

When my daughter was seven years old she asked my wife and I if she had been baptized. She became quite stressed when we told her she hadn’t (we were both atheists). Her teacher at primary school had told the class that people who had not been baptized would go to hell. We did not go into school to complain about this. In fact, we allowed a family friend to arrange for her to be baptized. We took the view that she would eventually be old enough to make her own decisions about religion. She is now an atheist and did not have her own two sons baptized. In fact, her political and religious beliefs are very similar to those of her parents. I think that is to be expected. However, I do not believe it has anything to do with indoctrination.

This is also my approach to teachers who might have tried to persuade my daughter to be a racist. I was confident that she had been brought up in such a way that she would be able to question what the teacher was doing. True she was vulnerable to religious propaganda when she was seven years old. However, she got through that. I suspect most students will also be able to do that. I am one of those who believes the best protection from those who promote hatred of others, is to provide students with the skills of questioning all ideologies. That includes your own ideology.

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I think that a pupil who ended up "sharing my beliefs" would demonstrate it by ruthlessly questioning every tenet. That is what my sons and my daughter do.

When the BNP publish websites giving names and addresses of people they want harrassed and/or attacked that is pushing freedom of speech. Likewise (Tom Stoppard's example) someone who shouts "FIRE" in a crowded theatre and people get killed in the rush to evacuate the area.

Those who deny the holocaust in public but celebrate it in private have to be stopped by any means necessary. The "no platform" policy is not wrong in principle - if providence provided me with a means to prevent someone attacking me or my family I would use it: that would include the thug who carried out the order and the person who gave the order.If denying them one platform just gives them a bigger one then that tactic is questionable.

As for "drawing the line on the slippery slope" we could further enhance the metaphor with a statement from Adolf Hitler "Either we will trample the corpses of our enemies or they will trample our corpses." A little medaeval perhaps but it does suggest that by and large fascists do not come for a chat and a cup of tea. Their preferred method of debate has always been the boot and the fist.

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As for "drawing the line on the slippery slope" we could further enhance the metaphor with a statement from Adolf Hitler "Either we will trample the corpses of our enemies or they will trample our corpses." A little medaeval perhaps but it does suggest that by and large fascists do not come for a chat and a cup of tea. Their preferred method of debate has always been the boot and the fist.

I also wouldn't feel too uncomfortable deporting clerics who tell husbands it's OK to beat their wives, or to blow children to smithereens because one day they'll be adults who might conceivably become enemies...

But that's where the difficulty comes in deciding who should decide... If I could be the one who decides who has freedom to express their views, then everyone could rest easy. I'm a good, card-carrying liberal. Unfortunately, it isn't likely to be me...

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John writes:

I am one of those who believes the best protection from those who promote hatred of others, is to provide students with the skills of questioning all ideologies. That includes your own ideology.

I am inclined to agree. I was very impressed by the materials produced by the Open University for the Philosophy and Logic modules that my wife took. They included many examples of authentic texts, written and broadcast, that contained flawed arguments, and students were set tasks in which they were encouraged to tear the arguments to pieces. I believe that students of all ages should be given thorough training in spotting a flawed argument, whether it contains a false premise, begs a question or contains a logical fault. I appreciated the sixth-form classes in Philosophy and Logic that were compulsory for all students at the grammar school I attended. I am sure they helped clarify my thinking and changed my attitudes to a wide range of beliefs. However, this experience still doesn’t stop me getting hot under the collar when I hear someone spouting forth and expressing views that I fundamentally disagree with and feeling like thumping them in order to shut them up. I can be completely unreasonable at times – but I know when I’m being unreasonable.

I am rather glad that I took up a career as a Modern Languages teacher. We don’t seem to get embroiled in the same kinds of heated discussions that affect teachers of History and Politics.

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John writes:
I am one of those who believes the best protection from those who promote hatred of others, is to provide students with the skills of questioning all ideologies. That includes your own ideology.

I am inclined to agree. I was very impressed by the materials produced by the Open University for the Philosophy and Logic modules that my wife took. They included many examples of authentic texts, written and broadcast, that contained flawed arguments, and students were set tasks in which they were encouraged to tear the arguments to pieces.

I was a student at the Open University and took the unit on philosophy. Hopefully I have been influenced by the course.

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Those who deny the holocaust in public but celebrate it in private have to be stopped by any means necessary. The "no platform" policy  is not wrong in principle - if providence provided me with a means to prevent someone attacking me or my family I would use it: that would include the thug who carried out the order and the person who gave the order.If denying them one platform just gives them a bigger one then that tactic is questionable.

As for "drawing the line on the slippery slope" we could further enhance the metaphor with a statement from Adolf Hitler "Either we will trample the corpses of our enemies or they will trample our corpses." A little medaeval perhaps but it does suggest that by and large fascists do not come for a chat and a cup of tea. Their preferred method of debate has always been the boot and the fist.

It is not only the far-right who have suppressed the opinions on those they disagree with. Communist governments have also been guilty of censoring the views of their opponents. This has on occasions included killing troublemakers.

As Mike Tribe rightly points out:

I also wouldn't feel too uncomfortable deporting clerics who tell husbands it's OK to beat their wives, or to blow children to smithereens because one day they'll be adults who might conceivably become enemies...

But that's where the difficulty comes in deciding who should decide... If I could be the one who decides who has freedom to express their views, then everyone could rest easy. I'm a good, card-carrying liberal. Unfortunately, it isn't likely to be me...

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John writes:

It is not only the far-right who have suppressed the opinions on those they disagree with. Communist governments have also been guilty of censoring the views of their opponents. This has on occasions included killing troublemakers.

Indeed! It's very easy and maybe even fashionable in some circles to mount continued attacks against the far-right (whom I detest), but John is absolutely correct in pointing out that the far-left are equally bad. I experienced a far-left government at first-hand on a month-long visit to Leipzig in 1976, which was then in the "sogenannte Deutsche Demokratische Republik" ("so-called German Democratic Republic") as the West German government referred to it. It was an illuminating experience. Essentially, the GDR was a centrally-controlled police state that had adapted many of the institutions set up by Hitler, e.g. the Gestapo (which became the Stasi) and the Hitler Youth (which became the Freie Deutsche Jugend), in order to further the causes of Socialism - the GDR always called itself a Socialist state, not a Communist state. After one month living in this repressed society I radically changed my views about left-wing and right-wing politics and their relative merits/demerits. Both sides are equally good at using "the boot and the fist" (v. Derek Macmillan's contribution).

So where have I ended up? Somewhere in the middle I guess, but I have also developed a healthy disrespect for all politicians and anyone actively involved in politics.

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