Charlottesville and Beyond (Orientation)


Facilitators and students should familiarize themselves with the story by reading the First Amendment text below and this entry on the Free Speech Tracker: Charlottesville march results in violence, death.

For best results with this orientation module, use the introduction that follows as a chance for personal reflection and engagement, enlarge the discussion activity to a partner, then small group, then full class. Leave time for reflection and closure. Consider providing students your contact information for follow-up.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

“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 of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”


Though the Supreme Court has held that speech that “incites or directly leads to violence” can be restricted, we as a nation must contend with the aftermath of what occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the summer of 2017. The context and background for the incident, the rally itself, the violence, and the aftermath are at the heart of Free Speech issues in the contemporary United States. This session seeks to foster thoughtful consideration and debate about the boundaries of Free Speech.

Session Objectives (5 min.)

  1. To understand the nuances and tensions of Free Speech and its consequences.
  2. To foster civil discourse about the role and power of Free Speech.
  3. To apply a normative understanding of Free Speech to a contemporary case.

Model Engagement (10 min.)

Toward the goal of creating “brave spaces” and microcosms of “diverse democracy,” facilitators may ask students/participants to develop “conditions” or norms for successful dialogue. Facilitators may also ask that students consider what successful dialogue sounds like in the context of their education.

Topical Introduction (45 min.)

Context (10 min.) U.S. journalism has changed due to the closure of many local newspapers; an increase in small, independent, online outlets; and the omnipresence of social media. In your mind, what is the role of a free press in a democratic society? Discuss with a partner and then share with the group.

Video and Reflection (35 min.) Vice Media, a company founded by journalists, evolved from coverage of independent, local arts to a range of global news stories. Rather than mainstream media outlets, Vice was the main source of coverage of the rally. Watch Vice News’ video footage from the white supremacist march in Charlottesville:

Then discuss:

  1. What did you notice?
  2. What questions does this video raise?
  3. To what historical contexts or events does this episode connect?
  4. How does it extend questions raised by historical events?
  5. How do the Charlottesville events challenge us? The status quo?

Options for Discussion

Choose one of the following three options.

Option A

Divide the students into groups and ask each group to read one of the following articles:

  1. A Guide to the Charlottesville Aftermath, The New York Times, Aug. 13, 2017
  2. The Problem With Making Hate Speech Illegal, Foreign Policy, Aug. 14, 2017
  3. A Twitter campaign is outing people who marched
    with white nationalists in Charlottesville, The Washington Post, Aug. 14, 2017
  4. Heather Heyer remembered at Charlottesville memorial, Politico, Aug. 16, 2017
  5. What Europe Can Teach America About Free
    Speech, The Atlantic, Aug. 19, 2017

Ask each group to discuss its assigned article and then present a summary of the article to the whole class. Each group should identify the tensions the article surfaces.

Option B

In small groups, students discuss the following questions:

  1. Should policymakers enact laws that restrict hate speech?
  2. If so, how should the government decide what constitutes hate speech?
  3. Can speech itself constitute violence?

Share summaries with whole group.

Option C

Review the role the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) played in preparations for the white supremacist march.

Discuss the criticism the organization faced, the adjustments it announced, and the organization’s history of representing hateful groups, including American Nazis.

Related ACLU Questions (20 min.)

  1. Should the ACLU continue to defend Nazis and other hate groups?
  2. If a protester legally possesses a firearm, should that affect the ACLU’s defense of his or her civil liberties?
  3. Is the ACLU limited in its conception of Free Speech and blind to a more “holistic” understanding of how citizens exercise their rights?

For Further Discussion

  1. Should white nationalists and other hate groups be permitted to stage rallies in public spaces, or should “hate speech” of this type be in a special category?
  2. When Twitter users “out” white nationalists to their schools and employers, are they contributing to a more polarized society or merely showing that speech has consequences?
  3. By tolerating those who are intolerant, does the First Amendment shape a society that is more or less tolerant?

Moment of Closure and Reflection (10-15 min.)

  1. Has your thinking changed from the beginning of the session to now? Why or why not?
  2. Consider how the group interacted around this topic today. What did you notice?
  3. How might we improve our ability to engage in civil discourse in U.S. society?