Freedom of Expression: Study Questions

Suggested Study Questions and Activities

Teachers: The following are questions and activities that can be given to your students after they read the materials in each section. The questions are meant to be asked as a review exercise, although some encourage critical thinking as well. The activities can be presented as classroom exercises or as individual homework assignments. Unlike the questions, they tend to require additional research. Some call for students to create mock trials or debates that would engage the entire class. Both the questions and the activities are formatted so that they might be used directly by students, although you may rewrite them as you feel necessary.

Essential Principles


In the 16th and 17th centuries, scientists discovering the principles of the heliocentric universe were banned and repressed by the Vatican. What lessons about free expression did European countries learn from these examples? How did these lessons affect the Enlightenment?

How did John Milton’s arguments in Areapogitica effect the debate around freedom of expression? Were his arguments accepted at the time? Why is the essay still viewed as a touchstone in establishing principles of free expression?

Why did Oliver Wendell Holmes change his mind on his own “clear and present danger” doctrine to write “The Great Dissent” arguing in favor of general freedom of expression?

Why do free speech advocates like Ronald Koven of the World Press Freedom Committee argue against restrictions on free expression? Are they right that any restrictions lead to more restrictions (see "The Meddler's Itch" in Resources)?


Even in totalitarian countries, one finds examples of individuals who challenge official orthodoxy and seek to find ways to express themselves more freely. What methods have been used by writers and scholars in dictatorships to express dissent or non-conformity? Assign students to find examples of such cases. (One article listed in Resources is by Michael Scammel on the topic of Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, which also describes the significance of such books during the Cold War. Another example in Resources is Vaclav Havel’s “Power of the Powerless” and Liu Xiaobao’s Charter 08 petition.)

Design a scenario based on current events in which free speech is restricted within a democratic country: e.g. Edward Snowden’s releasing or publishing national security information or France’s anti-hate speech statute, among other topics. Discuss different issues around this scenario: Are there legitimate restrictions that might be placed on free speech? What political or judicial traditions, laws, and decisions exist to justify your restriction of speech?  What are recent examples in which there have been restrictions on free speech? Create a debate on one of these issues Organize teams to research this issue in light of previous free speech Supreme Court cases to make arguments on each side (see Cornell University Law School Library’s Supreme Court Collection on free speech issues in Resources).

Google and Yahoo! have agreed to allow their internet search engines to be censored in the People's Republic of China. Bloomberg News has allowed its coverage to be self-censored. Using Resources and other sources, conduct background research on this issue. Answer the question: Should internet sites or news media outlets allow such prior restraint on their products or articles? What reasons do they give to justify such censorship? What have free speech organizations argued to try to convince Google and Yahoo! to refuse such terms for operating in China?



What were the original principles of media freedom in the Netherlands? How did it reflect the different communities in Netherlands at the time? How have violence, recent acts of terrorism, and extremism affected politics in the Netherlands?


Imagine that you are an editor in the Netherlands prior to the Muhammad cartoon controversy in neighboring Denmark and you were given similar cartoons. Organize a class discussion around the topic: Would you publish such cartoons? Why or why not? What if you personally found them offensive? Would you publish them even if you knew they would offend some of the readers? Set up a classroom debate and have different students take turns pretending to be an editor and defending their decisions for or against publication. For the discussion, have students read the Economist’s editorial and special report around the cartoon controversy or Ronald Koven’s “The Meddler’s Itch” (see Resources). Use the activity also to have students explore for additional material on this topic, including materials that explore the issue from an opposing viewpoint.



What role have the free media played recently in Ugandan politics? How effective has it been in providing a balance to the authoritarian power of Uganda's long-time leader, Yoweri Museveni?


President Museveni justifies his long tenure in office and restrictions on freedoms by arguing that they are necessary to prevent a return to dictatorship, such as under Idi Amin. Is this justification legitimate? Develop a position in favor of this argument. How do you justify limits on free speech? Develop a position against this argument that addresses the speech issue.



How has Chinese history affected the Chinese communist regime? Is there a relationship between imperial China and communist China? What countries have experienced similar histories? What factors contributed to the collapse of China’s first republic?

How have authorities in China suppressed freedom of expression at different points in its history? When was there a greater degree of freedom of expression? How did communist China seek to use media and propaganda to strengthen communist rule?

What was the Fifth Modernization advocated by Wei Jingsheng during the Democracy Wall movement? What are other examples of support for freedom of expression and democracy expressed by China’s citizens? How does China’s government successfully  suppress freedom of expression?

How have Hong Kong residents protected their freedoms since the 1997 handover of the British colony to the People’s Republic of China? What freedoms exist in Hong Kong that are not freely exercised in the PRC? How does the PRC try to inhibit freedoms in Hong Kong? Should Hong Kong citizens be able to directly elect their executive?


Using the Resources section and other material, research and organize a class discussion around the demonstrations that took place in Beijing's Tiananmen Square and other Chinese cities in 1989. What prompted the demonstrations? How were they similar to Eastern European democracy movements? How effectively did the Chinese authorities suppress the Tiananmen Square democracy movement? Do the Tiananmen Square demonstrations support or disprove the thesis that democratic rights are universal?

Using the Economist and New York Times links in the Resources section, review recent government actions to restrict freedom of the press in the mainland and on Hong Kong. What are the practices of the Chinese government to restrict freedom of expression? How do these practices compare to “free” countries in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World and Freedom of the Press surveys.

Many people believe that the internet will be a liberating force in the realm of freedom of expression. Read “Busting China’s Bloggers” in the New York Times OpEd pages. Is the author optimistic or pessimistic about the impact of the internet in China?  Examine Freedom House’s recent country reports on China in the 2016 Freedom of the Press and Freedom of the Internet  as well as the Economist’s special report on the internet in China (see Resources). What changes have been seen in the last ten years? How have Chinese authorities sought to control the internet? How effective have they been?