The recent attack on the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo has brought into sharp focus issues of freedom of speech that teachers may want to explore in class.
Twelve people were killed in the initial attack on 7 January, including the editor, cartoonists and other staff working for the paper, a caretaker and two policemen.
Here are some useful links to resources that can support teaching about these events.
- Facing History and Ourselves: Talking About Paris: Citizenship in the Face of Division, Fear, and Hatred
- The Day (news website for schools): France in mourning after magazine massacre; Terror attack threatens to tear France apart – these articles summarise events and suggest teaching activities.
- New York Times Learning Network: 6 Q’s About the News | Terror Attack on Charlie Hebdo Newspaper in Paris Kills 12
- Buzzfeed features a range of cartoons created by different artists in response to the attack – these could be analysed in class or inspire students to create their own. (Some may be upsetting, so do check through them first.)
- BBC Magazine asks Who first said ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’? and uses some of the reaction cartoons to explore the idea.
- The Guardian: Books to breed tolerance: what children can read after the terrorist attacks in Paris – includes recommendations of books for both younger and older children
- Three Faiths Forum: “I saw it on the news…” This resource provides teachers with tips and tools for responding to controversy, particularly where there are students of different faiths and perspectives.
- You could use our Ten critical questions to explore issues around terrorism and/or freedom of speech.
- The Insted Consultancy has compiled a set of links to articles that query the dominant narrative around the Charlie Hebdo attacks and explore alternative approaches to understanding: Charlie Hebdo, free speech, us-and-them thinking
Free speech vs causing offence
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Does freedom of speech allow people to say, write and draw things that might be offensive to others? Charlie Hebdo was well known for publishing provocative cartoons poking fun at many different religions, including cartoons portraying Muhammed. Of course, no ‘offence’ ever deserves a murderous response such as this one. But students could explore to what extent they think there should be a limit on free speech. What if it’s hate-filled, racist or homophobic? How far should freedom of speech be balanced with other rights? When does causing offence tip over into abuse? Does someone’s right to cause offence trump someone’s right not to be offended?
In the UK there are various statutes which prohibit ‘hate speech’. But following the ‘feel free to insult me’ campaign by Reform Section 5, the crime of “insulting” someone through words or behaviour has been dropped (BBC News: ‘Insulting words’ crime ditched).
It might also be worth asking whether the attackers were really ‘avenging’ some perceived offence? If all they want to do is stir up fear and hatred, what do your students think would be the best way for society to respond?
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