Last week, I was asked to organise whole-school assemblies on the issue of freedom of speech – what it is, why it’s important and how we need to preserve it.
I feel strongly that one of the biggest challenges educators will face in the next 20 years is in preserving free speech in all classrooms.
For me, the starting point is to ensure students know that they are entitled to their opinions. As long as their views fall within the law, then students should be encouraged to express their views, argue their case using evidence and feel free to challenge the views of others. There should be no elephants in the room. In my view, we are in danger of dumbing down intelligent debate in our schools for fear of offending. I think we need to pin up the words of Voltaire in all classrooms – “I don't agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Surely, this is the attitude we want, not “you can’t say that and we can’t talk about this”. There are many human rights out there, but the right to not be offended isn’t one of them.
I feel strongly that a teacher’s role is to be impartial. We need to make all students feel comfortable to express themselves, especially on divisive issues. We can’t shy away from the stuff that really matters. We need to listen to diverse views, offer our opinion by all means, but make clear that it is opinion and those of all others are equally valid.
This impartiality means no double standards. We can’t allow a criticism of one thing or person and then present another as "off limits". Donald Trump has been intensely critiqued, shouted at, bawled about and castigated for some of his words and actions. That’s fine. But he isn’t the only leader in the world who enacts controversial policies. America remains a bastion of free speech, hence the intense and public castigation of Trump in the US and elsewhere. But I have heard and read very little about the (in my opinion) even worse political abuses happening around the world. What about China? Saudi Arabia? Iran? North Korea? Is it the case that as much as we allow mockery of Trump, we are doing the same when it comes to other leaders, regimes and institutions? One tweet last week put this better than I could: “Donald Trump is such a terrifying fascist dictator that literally no one fears speaking out against him on literally any platform.”
There are still countries in this world where women can’t drive, vote or even go outside alone – are we inviting conversation about the who, why and where of that on the same token as conversations about Trump's immigration policies?
Are we only allowing what we find comfortable? Are we, as teachers, actually censoring debate? Perhaps not intentionally, but with our own subconscious personal views? We should surely be encouraging our students to not just look for the easy targets when it comes to criticism, but also the tough ones. Of course, the danger is, in stifling more moderate, centrist debate, we turn those young people who would otherwise be engaged in the middle ground to the fringes. They will search for forums where they can express their views. They will search for answers to their questions. They may turn to social media and listen to those completely unafraid to offend, accuse or vilify. Some of these people may not be intelligent, balanced or ethically guided.
Much-maligned commentator Katie Hopkins had something to say a few weeks ago on this issue: “Schools are supposed to teach kids how to think for themselves, not what to think. So why are so many liberal teachers bullying and brainwashing children with their own intolerant views?”
A controversial view, but one for which I have some sympathy, after hearing stories myself of teachers allowing students to label each other “racist” for holding valid political views. There seems to be a trend for “labelling” someone for simply holding an opinion that’s “outside mainstream”. By all means, it should be rigorously counter-challenged whether its left-wing, right-wing or whatever, but certainly this idea of resorting to such loaded phrases when on the defensive needs to be stopped.
Hopkins illustrated her point using Trump as an example: “I can accept that many teachers believe Trump to be an odious individual and/or that Trump equals hate. Though, the opinion that Trump equals hate is not a fact. It is a view.”
By closing down free expression, we give ammunition to those who doubt its existence.
In promoting freedom of speech, I think it’s vital that students know the difference between opinion and fact. They need to know how to interrogate news and views. Subjects like history play an important role here, giving students the chance to know how to test the validity of pieces of information. Last week, my Year 9 students were able to interview historian Paul Reed, who gave them some very pertinent advice on testing the reliability of sources. In RE, work on fact and opinion is sacrosanct.
If we are to avoid a further haemorrhaging of the centre ground, we need to support our young people in dragging what they find important away from the fringes and back to the middle. This will happen through intelligent and liberated debate. School leaders, classroom teachers and form tutors can all play an important role. We are all in this together.
For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue