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Free Press and the Revolutions

Plan 2:  Free Press and the Revolutions

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In this lesson, students will focus on how the French and American revolutions influenced and emergence of free press in these countries.  Students will study the link between government control of the press and the type of government, and how the leaders of oppressive nations use the press to keep political power.  They will also look at the how free press can impact a country’s government in both positive and negative ways.

Subject Areas: 
Journalism, Communication Arts, World History, Political Science, Current Events, and Social Studies

Grade Level:  9-12

Lesson Objectives:
Students will:
1.  Participate in a number of discussion activities related to free press, censorship, and propaganda during the French and American revolutions
2.  Utilize prior knowledge to define various words related to free press
3.  Utilize viewing skills to analyze information from a Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution video clip and related content from the website
4.  Compare the role of the media and censorship in the French and American revolutions
5.  Compare and contrast the benefits of free press
6.  Complete research about a country currently limiting the freedom of the press
7.  Utilize what was learned from research to create a piece of media that could be used to inform others about the significance of free press in a society

Relevant National Standards:
Standard 8:  Understands the central ideas of American constitutional government and how this form of government has shaped the character of American society.
Standard 15:  Understands how the United States Constitution grants and distributes power and responsibilities to national and state government and how it seeks to prevent the abuse of power.

Historical Understanding
Standard 1:  Understands and knows how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns
Standard 2:  Understands the historical perspective

World History
Standard 32:  Understands the causes and consequences of political revolutions in the late 18th
                      and early 19th centuries

American History
Standard 6:  Understands the causes of the American Revolution, the ideas and interests involved
                    in shaping the revolutionary movement, and reasons for the American victory
Standard 8:  Understands the institutions and practices of government created during the
                    Revolution and how these elements were revised between 1787 and 1815 to create
                    the foundation of the American political system based on the U.S. Constitution and
                    the Bill of Rights

Language Arts
Standard 1:  Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process
Standard 4:  Gathers and uses information for research purposes

Standard 5:  Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process
Standard 7:  Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of
                    informational texts

Listening and Speaking
Standard 8:  Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes

Standard 9:  Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media

Working with Others
Standard 1:  Contributes to the overall effort of a group
Standard 4:  Displays effective interpersonal communication skills

Estimated Time:
Two 90-minutes class periods or three to four 50-minute class periods plus additional time for extension activities.

Materials Needed:
  • Control the Press, Control the People handout (included with lesson plan)
  • Internet access and primary source materials for conducting research
  • Optional: 
    • Television with VCR/DVD to view video clips from Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution (clip specified in lesson plan)
    • Assorted art supplies

1.  Begin by facilitating a short discussion to get students interested in the topic of free press and its impact on people, governments, and leaders worldwide.  Start the discussion by asking a question such as: 
•    How would your local newspaper, television station, or radio station be different if the content was controlled by the government?

2.  Continue the discussion by asking students to work with a partner to define the following terms.  Write each term on the board/overhead and have students write their definition of each on a piece of scratch paper. 
  • free press
  • censorship
  • propaganda
  • fact
  • opinion
  • rumor/gossip
3.  Once students have had several minutes to discuss the various terms, work as a class to define each of them.  Record definitions on the board or overhead so all students can see. 

4.  Continue the discussion by asking students questions such as:
  • Why would a person, group or government:
    • be opposed to freedom of the press? 
    • censor information being presented to the public?
    • distribute propaganda to the public?
  • How could having complete control of the press give a person, group or government more power?
  • How has the technological revolution and the development of new forms of press such as web-based news publications, blogs, podcasts, and satellite television feeds changed the ability of people, groups and governments to control the press?

5.  Explain to the class that they will be learning about how the French and American revolutions contributed to the emergence of free press in these countries.

6.  To better understand the press during the late 1700’s, share the following timeline facts (taken from the site's timeline)  with students OR have them view the following excerpt from Part 1 of the film Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution

NOTE:  The Marie Antoinette educator guides have been developed as a way to involve students in the origins, drama and outcomes of the French Revolution in a way that is relevant to their current lives.  Within the guides are recommendations for using brief, classroom-appropriate segments of the program to illustrate particular ideas and concepts. As always, educators are encouraged to preview the entire program and these segments before they are presented to students. Teachers may record the documentary and use it in the classroom for one year.  For more information on these and other teacher resources, please visit PBS TeacherSource.

     Timeline Facts:
  • 1782:  Marie Antoinette is accused of ignoring her duties at court by spending all her time at play in her Trianon retreat.
  • 1783:  The growing public hatred of Marie Antoinette is reflected and fed by an unstoppable supply of pamphlets, which portray the Queen as immoral, ignorant, extravagant, and adulterous.
  • 1785:  The Diamond Necklace Affair hurts Marie Antoinette's already-poor reputation. A thief forges the Queen's signature in order to purchase an extremely expensive that had been made for the Comtesse du Barry. The Cardinal de Rohan and a group of swindlers are truly at fault, but they are found innocent, while Marie-Antoinette is harshly (and permanently) judged in the court of public opinion.
      Film Excerpt:
  • approximately 45:56 beginning with “The growing hatred of the Queen now took the form of underground cartoons…” to approximately 48:00 ending with “….scurrilous images of the Queen which would have a decisive impact on events to come.”

    Discuss the timeline facts OR film excerpt using questions such as:
  • Why would the King want to censor and eliminate such information?
  • Was this an example of free press, or would you consider it propaganda, rumors, and gossip?  Explain why.

7.  In “American Experience:  John and Abigail Adams”, it is noted that

      “During Louis XVI's reign, the press was censored. No criticism of the King's policies was allowed. At the onset of the French Revolution, the press was given complete freedom, and introduced harsh critiques of the government.”
      To further illustrate some of the reasons Louis XVI may have wanted to censor the press, direct students to the Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution website page “Rumors & Revolution” or share the excerpt below with students.

Do Queens Just Wanna Have Fun?  Consummation Conundrum: Trouble in the Royal Bedroom!  Does the Queen Have a Swede on the Side? King's brother caught with Queen!

Headlines ripped from today's tabloids, tattling on lusty celebrities and rambunctious royals? Or is this gossip a few centuries old? 

Rumors have always been useful for those who wanted to sow discord and trouble, and this was never more true than in 18th-century France.  The hothouse atmosphere of the royal court, where factions and rivalries operated secretly to shape policy and undermine sometimes tenuous royal power, created a ripe environment for a thriving gossip mill, presented mostly in the form of  cheap, widely-distributed pamphlets that were the equivalent of today's tabloids. 

Hired by powerful leaders of court factions, the pamphleteers themselves were often down-and-out writers who cared less about politics and more about earning a fast buck.  The printers and sellers of pamphlets operated outside the law and had no qualms about spreading the most salacious rumors, often accompanied by lewd, pornographic pictures. The French public, like the printers, pamphleteers, and those who paid them, had a seemingly unlimited amount of ire for Marie Antointette, who became symbolic of all of France's ills. 

Printed secretly, the pamphlets were too plentiful to be squelched by the French government.  The graphically illustrated scandal sheets accused the Queen of crimes ranging from hopeless stupidity all the way to adultery, sexual deviance, and even treason.  Despite the claims of modern scholars to objectivity, these pamphlets continue to shape historical views of the French Queen, her society, and the aristocracy — just as they did for her contemporaries.”

8.  After reading this excerpt, discuss the content using questions such as:
  • What political motivation did people have for portraying the Queen this way?
  • How could this portrayal of the Queen impact her?  The King and his power to govern?  The politics of France?
  • Why do you think Louis XVI relaxed his control of the press when the revolution began?  In what ways could this help him politically?  Hurt him politically?

9.  Meanwhile, as citizens of the colonies in America were growing more eager for independence from British rule, it is noted in “American Experience:  John and Abigail Adams” that,
“In America, revolutionary leaders exploited the British government's lack of censorship and published newspapers and pamphlets that fed the fervor for independence.”

Discuss how colonists like Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense and other documents, used pamphlets and political cartoons to encourage the Patriots to fight for independence from English rule with little resistance from the British government. 
(see The American Revolution:  Thomas Paine available at  Rather than censoring the colonial press, the British simply rebutted it by producing documents of their own to be distributed in England.   Use questions such as the following to help students see the significance of free press in this success of the American Revolution.
  • How do you think Britain’s lack of censorship in the colonies hurt them politically?
  • How did the lack of censorship by Britain allow colonists to use the press to create a political advantage for them as they fought for freedom on colonial soil?
  • Do you think the results of the American Revolution would have been different had the British censored the colonial press?  Explain why.

10.  After studying the role of free press in the French and American revolutions, work with a partner to brainstorm answers to the following questions.  Be prepared to discuss your answers in class.
  • What are the positive aspects of living in a country where free press is allowed?  Provide specific examples to support your ideas.
  • What are the negative aspects of living in a country where free press is allowed?  Provide specific examples to support your ideas.

11.  When all groups have completed the activity, facilitate a class discussion about the positive and negative aspects of free press.  Record these in two separate columns labeled Positive Effects and Negative Effects and post this information on the board or overhead.

12.  Distribute the Control the Press, Control the People handout to each student.  Take time to read the information as a class and discuss it.  Review the assignment and provide students with 30-45 minutes of research time if the schedule permits.

13. When all students have completed the Control the Press, Control the People activities, have them share what they have learned with other members of the class.  Post the projects around the classroom or in a display area if possible to encourage dialogues about the significance of free press and our other First Amendment freedoms.

Assessment Suggestions:      
1.  Participation and completion grades could be assigned for all discussion and brainstorming activities.
2.  The Control the Press, Control the people research activity could be assigned a completion or
      accuracy grade.
3.  The project produced for the Control the Press, Control the People activity could receive a
     completion grade and/or a presentation grade that could take the form of a scoring guide, peer
     evaluation, or letter/percentage grade.

Extension Activity:
1.  Study examples of propaganda that have been used during various points in history such as the French and American revolutions, WWII, and the Gulf Wars.  Have students compare the impact of this propaganda during the different time periods, keeping in mind that during the French and American revolutions, printed materials were the primary means of communicating ideas.  During WWII, radio and newspapers were the primary means of communication, while during the Gulf Wars television news and the Internet are used by many as the primary source of information.  Discuss how technology and access to it could impact the believability of the propaganda.

Related Resources:
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Educator Guides

The Politics of RevolutionFree Press and the RevolutionsComparing Historically Significant Women in Power
Explore Versailles Queen's Chamber Fact or Fiction Quiz