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'After Charlie Hebdo we must teach students the importance of free speech, however offensive'

Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, and a former FE teacher, writes: 

After the barbaric assault on the staff of French magazine, Charlie Hebdo my Twitter time line has reflected some educators’ angst about how teachers, especially RE teachers, should respond to the atrocities committed "in the name of religion". One tweeted: “Good luck to all RE teachers who will be trying their very best to shine light on what happened in Paris yesterday. Our job is not easy” (Daniel Hugill). RE Online has a feature by Andy Midwinter who says events will have “a significant impact upon our task as RE teachers” and welcomes “any suggestions on exactly how we should approach this issue in the classroom”. 

There’s a danger here of getting into a defensive tangle. There is really only one lesson from these horrible shootings: that pupils should learn to tolerate views they find offensive. And that in itself is a challenge. Because, let’s be honest, many of today’s pupils can be particularly thin-skinned and easily offended: reared in a ‘you can’t say that’ censorious culture, encouraged to be offended by adult society.   

Although #JeSuisCharlie is trending and free speech has had an international surge of support in the wake of the Paris murders, actually arguing for the right to be offensive is deeply unfashionable today. From hate speech legislation to language codes, today’s orthodoxy demands bans more often than it defends free expression. A particularly shrill PC intolerance can lead to thoughtless assaults on press freedom, with knee-jerk demands that loud-mouths such as Katie Hopkins are gagged by TV and newspapers; that Page 3 is banned, lads mags covered up; the Exhibit B art exhibition was recently shut down by anti-racists. On university campuses (full of students fresh out of school) NUS No Platform policies have recently been extended from specific political groups to individuals and even pop songs accused of using discriminatory language. 

The trend in classrooms has reflected this censorious climate, creating a hyper-sensitive atmosphere, particularly around language. Far too many label childish derogatory playground insults as bullying, homophobic, sexist and so on. Any kid who wants to get a peer – or even a teacher – into trouble, only needs shout ‘racism’, and the wrath of officialdom will descend. We are in danger of so cocooning the young from offensive views that the notion of tolerance of uncomfortable ideas becomes anathema; anything that shakes their own familiar norms, whether religious or cultural, can lead to indignant outrage. And surely this gives the young a green light to become intolerant when we teach them that language is inherently harmful and dangerous to vulnerable groups? 
Teachers themselves are also victim to the mood-music of avoiding offence, so self-consciously self-censoring that they sound more like clones than inspirers. RE teachers I know, tell of tying themselves into knots when discussing the different religions so as not to offend.
Walking on eggshells when teaching can drain lessons of passion, reduced to anodyne, inoffensive bullet points. And what lesson are we teaching the young about freedom when self-confessed "prolific tweeter", a Morden primary teacher Jackie Schneider, is investigated by her school after a councillor reported her for sending "offensive" tweets during a public meeting? 

All this might seem a far cry from the Islamist violence on Paris streets.  But it is important to recognise that the desire to silence hateful images or speech, whether because it offends a religious group or upsets little Johnny, is driven by the same impulse: To put offended feelings on a pedestal above the freedom of thought and expression.  

So the lesson for pupils is, even if you are offended, you’ll survive.  Free speech is more important than your feelings, because in the end words and cartoons are not sticks and stones and can never REALLY hurt you. And the best response to ideas and images you don’t like? Argue back, write, debate. So well done to Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Faversham whose debating society has organised a solidarity gathering to pay tribute to the staff of Charlie Hebdo, as a gesture of, in their own words: “standing up for free expression and the values of the Enlightenment”. The school debaters conclude that while “this is a really small thing to do in response to such a tragedy (it is) not an insignificant one” and they are right. Their message is inspiring: pupils and teachers everywhere: never be silenced by the intimidation of censors whether wielding guns, laws, or speech codes. Speak out, be brave, and argue your corner.  And for Mr Midwinter and Hugill and other worried RE teachers, that’s your next lesson sorted: organise a debate on how best to defend free speech.

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