Free Speech Modules

Course modules

These modules are designed for use in college or university or advanced high school classes in any discipline in the social sciences or the humanities.

Censoring Curricula
Schools and universities have long been battlegrounds for high-stakes disputes about free speech in the U.S. Tensions in recent years, however, have stemmed less from the misadventures of inflammatory guest speakers or uncouth staff, but from something much more fundamental: what students are taught. PEN America, a free expression advocacy group, estimates that state legislators across 33 states introduced 122 “educational gag orders” in 2021, limiting classroom discussions on race, gender, and other “divisive” topics. The findings come at a time when public school boards and state governments have also restricted specific books from being taught in their classrooms or circulating in school libraries. Conservative lawmakers, the chief architects of these bills, claim they’re protecting American youth from a “radical” and “un-American” educational agenda. But their opponents see something far more sinister: a crass attempt to suppress subjects and perspectives that challenge tidy, simplistic, and exclusionary narratives of the American experience.

Social Media: The New Public Square?
As Internet access has increased around the world, the seemingly unlimited capabilities of social media to connect people appear to have come with many costs. Powerful tools for sharing truth can also enable lies to spread unchecked, and online communities where people come together to establish common ground can also host hate and sow division. As social media continues to dominate throughout the United States, to what extent has it become the “new public square?” What are the societal impacts of a tool that can both bring about change and fuel violence?

Insurrection at the United States Capitol
The assault on the U.S. Capitol building marked a significant moment of Donald Trump’s presidency, nearing its end, with the influence of the far-right, white supremacy, and white nationalism on full display. From election night on, the soon-to-be former president, joined by several fellow Republicans, denied that Joe Biden had won the presidency. On January 6, 2021, when Congress convened to certify the election under the terms of the 1887 Electoral Count Act, Trump held a rally advocating his supporters to go to the Capitol to “stop the steal.” Shortly after, attendees stormed the Capitol, attempting to stop the certification of the election. What appeared to be a disorganized and irate mob included members of highly-organized, far-right militia groups such as the Proud Boys and the Oathkeepers. Shortly after, social media companies barred Trump from their platforms. As of January 5, 2023, at least 978 people have been charged, with many defending that their actions constituted legitimate political discourse.

  1. Can It Happen Here? The Return of Book-Banning – and even Book-Burning
    Over the past few years, public school boards and state governments across the United States have turned their focus to restricting specific books from being taught in their classrooms or circulating in school libraries. Books about sexual identity, sexual activity, gender identity, and racial identity have been especially targeted. Capitalizing on parental concerns, both local and state politicians have advocated for the removal of certain books from school libraries and curricula. Amidst bannings, book burnings have also grown in number.
  2. Charlottesville and Beyond
    The dramatic and tragic events of August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, made clear the strength of the white nationalist and white supremacist movement in the United States today. In the midst of an alt-right rally near the University of Virginia, a counterprotester was killed and many others injured. The conflict shocked the nation and sparked a debate over whether and how to protect hate speech. Charlottesville, after experiencing the toxic mix of First and Second Amendment rights, strives to rebuild an inclusive community. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union has been left to ponder its strategies to preserve Free Speech, and the media are considering whether their coverage of such events amplifies the impact of white nationalism.
  3. Mayhem at Middlebury College
    Charles Murray was shouted down by student protesters during his appearance at Middlebury College on March 2, 2017. In the ensuing chaos, Murray was forced to deliver his remarks by livestream only, protesters with no connection to Middlebury provoked violence, and a Middlebury faculty member was injured and hospitalized. The incident led to ongoing conflict between students and administrators. The college punished students for their allegedly disruptive behavior, and the community engaged in months of soul-searching as to how to rebuild communication and trust. Two years later, two additional incidents reopened wounds that had barely begun to heal.
  4. Press Freedom, Murder, and American Foreign Policy
    When Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi columnist working for The Washington Post, went to his country’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct. 2, 2018, to obtain documents related to his upcoming marriage, he was immediately set upon by a Saudi assassination team, which brutally murdered and dismembered him. Many governments around the world condemned Saudi leadership for its complicity in the crime — but not the United States. President Donald Trump and many of his supporters, seemingly for pragmatic reasons, declined to accept the conclusion of the Central Intelligence Agency that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia was responsible. The incident raised profound and ongoing questions as to whether the United States has double standards for its allies and adversaries and whether Free Speech has any role to play in U.S. foreign policy.
  5. Of Monuments and Memorials: ‘Silent Sam’ and Other Disquieting Reminders of the Past
    A swarm of angry protestors tore down a towering bronze effigy of a Confederate soldier at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 2018. The incident became a flashpoint in an ongoing debate about public memorials that call up America’s problematic past. Proponents of tearing down Confederate statues and other remembrances of prominent racists say the memorials serve as reminders of a painful past; opponents, meanwhile, argue for the historical and cultural value of these markers. From debates on college campuses to the deadly 2017 riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, the controversy over Confederate monuments has fueled uproar in myriad communities, especially in the American South. But perhaps even more fundamentally, the felling of Confederate monuments encapsulates the lasting tension between Free Speech and the dark side of history
  6. Decline of Artistic Freedom in America?
    Coast to coast, in public and private institutions, new sensitivities have led to the cancellation of theater productions, art exhibitions, and television shows. U.S. corporations have censored comedy at the demand of repressive foreign governments, while school administrators have confronted students over their choice of music. Even attempts to revive the life story and art of controversial performers have been challenged. Arguments rage over the responsibility of schools and other institutions to uphold Free Speech in the artistic arena.
  7. Colin Kaepernick’s America
    Beginning in 2016, professional football player Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, knelt during the national anthem when it was played before National Football League (NFL) games, as a means of raising awareness of racial and social inequality and protesting police brutality against minorities. After becoming a free agent, Kaepernick experienced difficulty being hired by another NFL team and formally lodged a legal case against the NFL. In 2018, Nike signed Kaepernick as a spokesperson, a decision that sparked ongoing controversy. President Donald Trump publicly condemned Kaepernick, while multiple small religious colleges canceled their contracts with Nike. Other athletes, including Megan Rapinoe, captain of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, which won the World Cup in 2019, have risen to Kaepernick’s defense. The case has sparked national, and even international, debate about the relationship between patriotism and Free Speech.
  8. ‘Enemy of the People’ or Defenders of Democracy?
    In February 2017, President Donald Trump declared on Twitter that The New York Times, NBC News, ABC, CBS, and CNN were “fake news” and the “enemy of the people.” Whether intended as a political tactic or as an angry reaction to unfriendly coverage, Trump’s words have not faded with time, but rather taken hold and fueled serious consequences. A dull roar of opposition to what many perceive as reckless language has done little to diminish threats against reporters and the organizations they work for. As Trump repeats his accusations at frenzied rallies of his faithful, a growing distrust of the mainstream media has taken root in cities across the country, where journalists have been harassed, fired, and even killed. The U.S. press has never been more vulnerable, and the stakes have never been higher for journalists trying to do their job.
  9. The Free Speech Rights of High School Students
    From school newspapers stopped in their tracks to graduation speakers silenced during their commencement addresses — and even restrictions on politically oriented clothing — high school students have increasingly become the target of suppression from administrators. The officials’ motivation? Often not partisan, but rather a desire to avoid controversy of any sort. Many of the students fighting for their right to Free Speech in all its forms are college-bound, and their experiences in high school could prove formative to protests and censorship issues that arise on university campuses across the country.  

Orientation modules

These versions of Free Speech Modules are designed for use in orientation programs for students new to higher education or for community forums. Each orientation module includes guidelines and background for facilitators, as well as options for customization for particular needs or groups.