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Lesson Plan: Freedom of Speech and Religion

This lesson is designed for social studies classrooms, grades 9-12.

Lesson Objectives

By the end of this lesson, students will:

  1. Develop a position for a practical scenario involving a bookstore's response to controversial literature.
  2. Take notes on the main ideas expressed in an interview.
  3. Discuss whether or not criticism of sacred beliefs should be allowed.
  4. Identify two examples of free speech and religion coming into conflict.
  5. Create and analyze a mural that depicts conflicts between free speech and religion.
  6. Determine the political, economic, and cultural consequences of allowing free speech about religion.
Estimated Time

A little less than two 45-minute class periods.

Materials Needed

Relevant National Language Arts Standards

Source: "Content Knowledge" ( by McRel (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning)


Standard 2 : Understands the essential characteristics of limited and unlimited governments.
Standard 9: Understands the importance of Americans sharing and supporting certain values, beliefs, and principles of American constitutional democracy.
Standard 11: Understands the role of diversity in American life and the importance of shared values, political beliefs, and civic beliefs in an increasingly diverse American society.
Standard 23 : Understands the impact of significant political and nonpolitical developments on the United States and other nations.
Standard 25 : Understands issues regarding personal, political, and economic rights.
Standard 10 : Understands the nature and complexity of Earth's cultural mosaics.
World History
Standard 44 : Understands the search for community, stability, and peace in an interdependent world.
Backgrounder for Teachers

This lesson explores the sometimes difficult negotiation between freedom of speech and respect for religion in today's society. To stimulate discussion, the lesson uses part of a Bill Moyers interview with writer Salman Rushdie, who is famous for triggering a firestorm across the Islamic world for his depiction of the prophet Mohammed in his novel, THE SATANIC VERSES, published in 1988. The book was banned in more than a dozen countries, and Iran's Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the assassination of everyone involved in its publication. Within a few years, the book's Japanese translator had been stabbed to death, its Italian translator had been stabbed, and its Norwegian publisher had been shot. (Please see the Web site's portrait of Salman Rushdie ( for more information on the writer's background and other publications.)

The beginning of the interview segment references a manifesto signed by Rushdie that calls for universal freedom of expression and describes radical Islam as religious totalitarianism. The full text of this manifesto ( can be found at the Web site of author Irshad Manji, who also signed the document.

The interview with Rushdie also includes a discussion of the controversial publication in a Danish newspaper of political cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Mohammed. For a recap of what happened, please read the BBC's coverage" or refer to the Wikipedia entry on the controversy — the Wikipedia entry contains small versions of the cartoons. (

Assumed Student Prior Knowledge

For this lesson, it would be helpful if students had some knowledge of when, how, and why freedom of speech has been restricted in the past. Also, this lesson assumes that students are familiar with the violent protests that took place after a Danish newspaper published controversial political cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Mohammed.

Teaching Strategy

1. Give students five minutes or so to respond in writing to the following scenario:

Imagine you own a bookstore and are considering whether or not to stock a book that has triggered violent protests in the Muslim world. An Iranian Ayatollah has even publicly called for the death of the book's author and all those involved with its publication. What would you do and why?

2. Ask students to discuss what they've written with a partner, and then invite a few pairs of students to share their responses with the class. Capture key ideas on the board.

3. Explain that the scenario is an actual situation that bookstores around the world faced in 1988 when Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses was published. Many Muslims considered the book blasphemous, and Rushdie spent years underground in response to death threats. Rushdie now appears more regularly in public, and continues to speak his mind. In early 2006, Rushdie and several others signed a manifesto calling for universal freedom of expression and describing radical Islam as religious totalitarianism.

4. Next, show the class an 11-minute clip of Rushdie discussing freedom of expression with journalist Bill Moyers. (You may wish to refer to the transcript in your planning.) Have students take notes on the provided Viewing Guide as they watch.

5. After the clip, discuss the points on the Viewing Guide, especially student responses to the quote in question number five. Do students believe that people should have the right to criticize people or beliefs that many consider sacred? Why or why not?

6. For homework, ask students to identify two examples of free speech and religion coming into conflict (i.e., political cartoon satirizing the Catholic church's stance on a particular issue, a comedian's joke about Jewish practices, a Supreme court case about prayer in school, the manifesto Rushdie discussed in the interview, a book that challenges religious doctrine, etc.).

7. When they come to class, ask students to create a mural with the examples they've found. Depending on the example, they could tape up a newspaper article, draw the cover of a book, write the name of a court case, etc.

8. Give students a few minutes to look at the final mural. Ask them if they see any examples that "cross the line" of acceptable speech and should be banned. If so, do others agree or disagree? Have students justify their opinions for wanting to keep or reject any of the examples on the mural. What are the political, economic, and cultural consequences of allowing such forms of speech?

Assessment Recommendations

Students may be assessed through:

  • Participating in discussion activities.
  • Capturing the main ideas of the interview on the Viewing Guide.
  • Completing the homework assignment.
Extension Ideas

  • After students form their positions in step one of the Teaching Strategy above, have them watch a six-minute video clip of Salman Rushdie reading an excerpt from THE SATANIC VERSES to an audience attending the 2006 PEN World Voices Conference. Does hearing some of the text of this controversial book affect their thinking about their positions in any way?
  • As part of the class discussion about freedom of expression and religion, have students react to this quote by British philosopher Colin McGinn:
    "I think there's got to be a very firm distinction between criticism and persecution. And I think people misunderstand the idea of tolerance often. They think that tolerance is the same thing as lack of criticism. But to me, tolerating somebody else's beliefs is not failing to criticize them, it's not persecuting them for having those beliefs. That is absolutely important. You should not persecute people for their beliefs. But it doesn't mean you can't criticize their beliefs-those are not the same thing. I think people have tended to sort of run these two things together, and they perceive criticism as if it was persecution. But it isn't."
  • In his discussion with Bill Moyers, Rushdie compares radical Islam to Nazism or fascism. Have students evaluate the fairness of this assertion by researching these movements and then comparing and contrasting them in a Venn diagram.

  • Focus discussion on the effect of literary censorship by institutions and individuals. Watch a three-minute video clip of writer Jeanette Winterson describing how her religious mother censored the reading of most books at home and burned Jeanette's collection of hidden paperbacks. Ask students to react to her story and discuss what they think the impact of her mother's actions might be. Have students also research which titles have been included on the Catholic church's List of Prohibited Books. What is the purpose and influence of such a list?

  • Examine historical Supreme Court cases that deal with the complexities of freedom of speech. The American Library Association provides case summaries and helpful links in its listing of Notable First Amendment Court Cases (

Related Resources

Essay: Freedom of Speech
This essay from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides some interesting food for thought in preparing for this lesson's class discussions. It assesses the argument that speech can be limited because it causes offense rather than direct harm.

Perspectives on Freedom and Tolerance
Find quotations and the points of view about freedom and tolerance drawn from a number of interviews conducted by Bill Moyers.

Wikipedia: Freedom of Speech
This entry presents theories about free speech and gives examples of restrictions on free speech.
About the Author

Cari Ladd, M.Ed., is an educational writer with a background in secondary education and media development. Previously, she served as PBS Interactive's Director of Education, overseeing the development of curricular resources tied to PBS programs, the PBS TeacherSource Web site, and online teacher professional development services. She has also taught in Maryland and Northern Virginia.

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