Are we free to speak?

11th July 2008 at 01:00
Say what you want, as long as you respect other people's points of view. Bhavin Tailor powers debate in the classroom

Say what you want, as long as you respect other people's points of view. Bhavin Tailor powers debate in the classroom

Secondary - Ages 14-15

Free speech is always a controversial issue, so I call this lesson "Can I say what I want?" It's part of a wider Year 10 unit of study on rights and responsibilities.

I start off by deliberately picking on a blond pupil (this is staged and the pupils know this before the lesson) and calling them dumb. At first children find this funny but the point is that such comments will ultimately offend and, although we have the right to say many things, we also have a responsibility not to hurt others.

Subsequently, with the use of the interactive whiteboard, a Daily Mail headline is projected that reads: "Welcome to the land of free speech". A healthy discussion should then arise in agreement of why the UK is deemed to be a pinnacle of the free society. Then, deliberately and controversially, the sub-headline is revealed: "As long as you believe in killing gays, wife-beating and suicide bombers".

The article is about a Muslim cleric who was banned in the US but allowed to speak in the UK. Inevitably, a further discussion will erupt in which pupils, having just said free speech is a positive component of our society, begin to retract some of the earlier ideas.

To balance the debate and show that harmful remarks don't just come from one section of society, we also highlight the controversy surrounding the Oxford Union's invitation of Nick Griffin, the BNP leader, and David Irving, the historian who lost a libel case claiming that he was a holocaust denier, to a debate about free speech in November 2007.

Here, pupils watch a clip of the news bulletin from that evening (taken from the BBC website). They compare and contrast the two examples exploring the dilemma of when, if ever, we should curb free speech and the complexities entailed in this decision.

Inevitably, this topic will divide opinion and the debate can become heated. Nevertheless, this is fruitful and ultimately accomplishes the aim of the lesson - you can say what you want as long as it doesn't offend others and that you respect their points of view.

Bhavin Tailor teaches RE, citizenship and philosophy at Westhoughton High School in Bolton

You know the lesson is going well when .

Even the quieter pupils begin to raise an eyebrow and to say something. By the nature of citizenship, healthy discussions are important but, inevitably, some pupils will be more vocal than others. Nevertheless, topics such as this will hopefully make pupils want to convey their ideas.

You should .

- Be prepared for an array of questions and have a good background knowledge of the subject.

- Allow pupils to say what they want but make sure they are clear about justifying their opinions. This provides healthier debates and thus develops evaluative skills.

- Be prepared that the time constraints of your lesson may not be adhered to and some written work may be set for homework, or consolidate the activities in the subsequent lesson.

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