Learning resource: free speech – what’s it all about?

Free Speech – What’s It All About?


So, what is free speech? And what’s the link to translation? Let’s find out more.


You’ll need a group of random objects for one of these exercises. You might want to research the Paul Chambers Twitter example of a joke that went wrong.

Introduction activity

Explain that you think free speech has a lot to do with how we breathe. Just to get started, you want everyone to notice where their breath is and to focus on their breathing for half a minute. They might notice their breathing at their nose, mouth or belly. Get them to think about the in-breath, the out-breath and the time and space between the two. Why might breathing having anything to do with free speech? Here you just need to get them to think about how different it is when we speak under pressure with fast heartbeats and that feeling of being out of breath – and how much easier it is to speak when we can breathe freely and gently. Why might it be better for all speech if we’re breathing more generously? Or does free speech care about any of this? Perhaps free speech is about shouting and being angry and being out of breath? This exercise is also good because it’s in line with recent research that shows that young people can benefit from mindfulness exercises – particularly in terms of reducing stress around exams. Find out more at the Mindfulness in Schools website.

Then say that you also think free speech has something to do with names, and the ability and freedom we all have to simply say our name out loud. Get everyone to say their name out loud in turn – saying “I AM….” really proudly. If they want to stand up – by all means. Why does free speech have something to do with this? Have a quick enquiry. Write up on the board some words the group associate with free speech – and why free speech might have something to do with breathing and naming. Imagine a world where people didn’t have names. How would we refer to each other?

Watch the video

Enquiries & Activities

1. Free Jokes   Ask the group to think of a joke. Who can tell their joke? Get a few of them to tell their jokes. Make any observations about the jokes – do they make people laugh, if not why not etc? What do jokes and joke telling tell us about free speech? What’s the worst that could happen? Use the Paul Chambers Twitter example here – the “joke” about blowing up an airport which led to him being prosecuted and found guilt of sending a malicious Tweet. If you can, tell the whole story and lead up to the video of Paul Chambers outside court after his appeal finds in his favour. Finally, while we’re on jokes, is it possible to laugh without there being a joke? This is called unconditional laughter or laughter yoga. Laughter’s really good for you (it’s been scientifically proven!) – have a go at laughing without any jokes. Have an enquiry about whether it’s possible to laugh in a dictatorship.

2. Post It Up!  Invite everyone in the room to take a large Post-It note (the more colourful they are the better!). Ask everyone to either a) write a question on the Post-It note to do with Free Speech or b) complete this sentence: Free Speech Is… Ask everyone one by one to put their Post-It note on the wall and talk about the issues as and when they come up. Don’t rush but also don’t worry too much about spending much time on this. The key is that the ideas are put out there. You could mention that this is part of what’s called the Marketplace of Ideas – this is the idea that free speech is a positive thing because out of the markeplace of ideas we’ll get closer to the truth (or something like it).

3. PEN Objects   Create a table of objects (anything from rulers and hairbrushes through to mugs, flowers and your favourite childhood toy) and get everyone to stand round the table. This activity is about using objects to stand in for free speech. This activity introduces the idea of simile, which might be useful for creative writing later. Model the activity by pointing at something and saying: “Free speech is like… this rubber band, because it shows that our language is elasticated”. Get the participants to do the same with the objects. You could set the table up and have small groups come to the table throughout the session, while other things are happening, or do this as a whole group activity.

4. Talk To The Hand    Get everyone to work in pairs. Someone chooses to be the Speaker, the other person the Listener. Get the Listener to hold up their right or left hand. The Speaker has to speak in to the Listener’s hand, non-stop. If they don’t know what to say they can just say “I don’t know what to say I don’t know what  to say” – but the key is, they HAVE to speak. The other main rule is that the Listener can close her hand at any time and when she does this the Speaker has to stop. The Listener can do this as and when she wants. The Speaker must stop, half way through their sentence if need be, and re-start where  they left off, once the Listener opens her hand again. Keep doing this until you call time. Get the pairs to swap over so the Listener becomes the Speaker and vice versa. And then discuss the exercise. You can do this with more space, opening up in the room, getting the pairs to move around, so the Speaker has to follow the Listener’s hand, up and down, around and around. Add to this also by getting the pairs to discuss controversial topics such as “People in their 40s shouldn’t be allowed to have children” or “Prisoners should have the right to vote” or “Young people should have to do a year’s military service after school” and so on. This exercise was adapted from an exercise taught to me by the amazingly clever and hugely talented Julia Farrington from INDEX on Censorship.

5. Free Speech in School   Is there free speech in this classroom, or this school (or setting)? Have a simple conversation about this idea. Is free speech different for a student than it is for a teacher? What can’t a student say, what can’t a teacher say? What are you not saying right now? (Ha! The minute you say it, it’s no longer something you can’t say!)

6. Free Speech Island    Get the group to divide in to smaller groups of about 5-8 in each. Have large pieces of paper and pens at hand. Invite the groups to invent their own island or school. Draw the island or school. Now give it a name. How did you decide on your name? Discuss democratic process here.  What’s on your island, what’s in your school? This is dream come true terrritory so make sure you put everything in that you love and would love to have in real life.  You’ve now got to come up with the legislation around free speech for your island or school.  You’re only allowed to use 100 words to cover everything that you want to say. Write the law of the land! What will your free speech law be for your island or school?

7. Free Listening   Philip argued that free speech is more about listening than speaking. Free speech requires great listening skills. Watch this TED talk on Listening – and then have a group enquiry. What does listening have to do with free speech? Practise the five ways mentioned in the talk:

a) Silence – enjoy 3 minutes of silence a day. Experience 3 minutes of silence in the classroom. Discuss what this is like.  This links back to mindful breathing earlier on.

b) The Mixer – trying to pick out different sounds in the mix. Get everyone to speak, talk, whistle etc. Everyone should have a go at listening to as many things as possible. Get the participants to write as many of these things down as possible. 

c) Savoury – enjoying mundane sounds. Have a go at really enjoying mundane sounds. A footstep, a ruler, the door opening or closing etc. 

d) Listening positions – active/passive, expansive/reductive, critical/empathetic. Expand on these then use conversation cards and get people in to threes. Two people talk while one observes. Get the Listener to adopt different listening positions. Lead an enquiry after this. 

e) RASA – Receive, Appreciate, Summarise, Ask – explore RASA (Sanskrit word for juice or essence) and model with two or three participants, inviting everyone else to observe.

After all this, go back to the enquiry about why listening, or conscious listening, is important for free speech. Is there such a thing as conscious free speech? Should conscious listening be taught in schools?

8. No-one Has The Right Not To Be Offended    Philip loves to confuse people. He says that free speech is about no-one having the right not to be offended. Finish your discussion by trying to unpick what this means. It’s fun getting your head round complicated things like double negatives and human rights! Finally, relate free speech to translation. Does translation help foster free speech? Why? Finish up with half a minute’s quiet time – focusing on breathing and listening to the sounds around you.

In your own time

Set yourself a free speech challenge! Become a free speech campaigner like Mazin! Your challenge is to become a free speech champion in your local area, school or youth club. All you need to do is carry out some kind of intervention or activity that promotes free speech or speaking freely. This could be standing up on a soapbox in your local park, or bringing 8 people together to have a conversation about something important to them, or helping someone else with their reading and so on. It’s really up to you. The most important thing is – blog it or Facebook it or give a presentation to someone about your free speech challenge! That’s crucial – increasing awareness is the most important thing.


This learning resource was written by Philip Cowell. Free Speech – What’s It All About? is part of a series of five learning resources called Brave New Voices, funded by Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. Valgas Moore made the amazing animation and Azhur Saleem directed it. Thanks to Philip Cowell and Jo Glanville for their time.



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