Vaclav Havel: Free Expression

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Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel, ©2000 Eddie Adams


  • 9-12


  • Free Expression

Additional Resources


  • Article 19: Freedom of Opinion and Information


  • What does freedom of expression mean?
  • Why did the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights include free expression in their document?
  • Why do we need access to information to live in a truly free society?

OBJECTIVES: After this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Define and contextualize the term “free expression.”
  • Recognize the importance of maintaining free expression as a universal human right and as the foundation of a democratic society.
  • Examine and analyze the role of writers, poets, playwrights, journalists and essayists in the maintenance of free expression as a human right.
  • Recognize the challenges faced by those who exercise and defend the right of free expression as it is used to enact social change.
  • Understand the ways in which those who speak up to enact social change are silenced.


  • Critical thinking
  • Research paper
  • Analysis
  • Advocacy


  • Social Studies Standard 2: World History
    • Commencement KI 1 PI 3; KI 2 PI 3, 4, 5; KI 3 PI 1, 2, 3; KI 4 PI 1, 2, 3, 4
  • Social Studies Standard 5: Civics, Citizenship, and Government
    • Commencement KI 1 PI 1, 3; KI 3 PI 1, 2, 4; KI 4 PI 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
  • English Language Arts Standard 1: Language for Information and Understanding
    • Commencement Reading PI 1, 2, 4; Writing PI 1, 2, 3, 4
  • English Language Arts Standard 3: Language for Critical Analysis and Evaluation
    • Commencement Reading PI 1, 3, 4; Writing PI 1, 2
  • English Language Arts Standard 4: Language for Social Interaction
    • Commencement Speaking PI 1, 2; Reading/Writing PI 1, 2

NYS P-12 COMMON CORE LEARNING STANDARDS for ELA/Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12

  • RH/SS.9-10.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.
  • RH/SS.9-10.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.
  • WH/SS.9-10.9 Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
  • RH/SS.11-12.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
  • RH/SS.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
  • WH/SS.11-12.9 Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.


  • Dissident
  • Universal
  • Social justice
  • Repression
  • Defender
  • Power
  • Enact
  • Impart


  • Interactive whiteboard
  • Internet access
  • CD



  • It should be noted that students often need a clarification of terms that though familiar to them, may not be entirely clear. A helpful context for the idea of free expression is noted in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • Students must first have an understanding that democracy can only exist if there is a free and open flow of information and that those who seek to control others often try to repress criticism.

Student Activities


  • Instruct the students to read Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • After reading, instruct the students to rephrase the Article in their own words.
  • Ask the students to report out orally to class via teacher- facilitated discussion.


  • Distribute to students copies of the article describing free expression and the article describing history of free expression.
  • Divide the class into three groups.
  • Each group should be assigned one of the following activities:
    • Interpret Article 19
    • Interpret the general idea of freedom of expression
    • Interpret freedom of expression
  • Instruct the students to read, analyze, and discuss the articles.
  • After analyzing the materials, groups should agree upon their contextual understanding of each article, making notes that represent the point of view of the group.
  • Have students report out their findings. Other groups should take notes on the information.
  • Instruct the groups to draft a freedom of expression section of a new government’s constitution.
  • Once completed, have the groups reconvene as a class and merge the draft of the freedom of expression ideas into one document.


  • Distribute to the class the interview of Vaclav Havel from the Speak Truth to Power Web site. (symbol for link)
  • Distribute to the class the reading on “The Power of the Powerless.”
  • Instruct the students to use the following questions as guidance when reading the two pieces.
    • What might a group that has control do to someone who speaks up against it?
    • Why would Havel’s government have made a move to silence him?
    • What is it about his essay “The Power of the Powerless” that might have upset his government?
    • Are there less obvious ways to silence criticism?
  • During a teacher-guided and student-centered Socratic analysis of the interview and essay, students will indicate which passages might have been considered dangerous to Havel’s government.
  • The teacher will then lead and involve students in a discussion about the ways in which Havel was abused and jailed for his views.

Become a Defender

  • To address the question about other less obvious ways to silence criticism, students can research the following topics
    • I – indicates international issue
    • D – indicates domestic issue
  • Government licensing of journalism (I)
  • Issues regarding fair use and intellectual property rights (I, D)
  • The uses and limits of the Freedom of Information Act (I)
  • Free Speech Zones (D)
  • The Telecommunications Act of 1996 (D)
  • Daniel Pearl (I, D)
  • Hate Speech Legislation (I, D)
  • Deaths of journalists in the early part of the 21st century (I,D)
  • Free speech rights granted to corporations (D)
  • Propaganda (I, D)
  • Students will “publish” their essays as a chapter book for distribution among students OR: publish their papers on the school website; write a short play in which the issues regarding abridgement of free speech are highlighted.
  • Students can study and interpret, in language appropriate to students’ lexicon and specific interests, write and distribute within the school community, their version of the Bill of Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, together with the original versions.
  • Students can hold after-school seminars to discuss the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the U.S. Bill of Rights with students.
  • Students can reach out to and invite to their school their congressional representatives or their state senator or assemblyman to speak at a student assembly regarding the First Amendment and any pending legislation that may be restrictive regarding free expression.
  • Students can become members of an international or national human rights, civil rights or social justice organization in order to become informed about domestic and international threats to freedom of expression and human rights in general.
  • Students can create and maintain a media watchdog site to report to the school, community, and global population issues regarding censored news stories, abridgement of freedom of expression and persecution of journalists.
  • Students can compile a list of journalists and others whose right to freedom of expression have been repressed both domestically and internationally and invite them to be guest writers for their website.
  • Students can research persons whose free expression rights have been abused and ask them to be guest speakers in their schools and communities.


  • Human Rights Watch – A human rights monitoring group that tracks abuses of human rights –
  • Free Child – suggestions about how students can get involved in activist projects regarding a variety of issues –
  • Washington Youth Voice Handbook – a guide to how students can get involved in government policy making and have a voice with regard to social issues –


The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights is sponsoring an annual contest honoring a student who submits the best advocacy activity based upon the lesson studied. A goal of the lesson is to instill into each student that one voice, one person can make monumental changes in the lives of many. Tell us how you “Became a Defender”!


  • A one-page summary of the advocacy activity
  • Digitized copies of materials that can be sent electronically
  • Photos of the activity (please include parental consent form)
  • A one-page summary of how the activity made a change in the lives of one person or many


  • A week long “virtual” internship at RFK Center
  • An opportunity to meet the defender through a SKYPE visit,
  • A visit from Kerry Kennedy or a defender to your school
  • A poster of a Speak Truth to Power Human Rights Defender
  • A donation of a signed copy of Speak Truth to Power for the school library

The application and instructions for entry can be downloaded here (link for materials)

The deadline for all applications is the third week in November.

The winning student and teacher will be notified by the last week of January.

Additional Resources

“Freedom of Expression: Resistance and Repression in the Age of Intellectual Property:
Published by the Media Education Foundation

“The New Threat to Freedom of Expression”:

“Modern Propaganda Techniques” Free

FAIR – Fairness and Accuracy in Media
A national media watch group working to invigorate the First Amendment by advocating for greater diversity in the press and by scrutinizing media practices that marginalize public interest, minority and dissenting viewpoints.

Columbia Journalism Review
Critical analysis of American and foreign journalism

Postman, Neil. Powers, Steve. How to Watch TV News. Penguin. NY. 2008.
Sociological analysis of television broadcasting

Deacon, Richard. The Truth Twisters. Macdonald and Co. London. 1987.
An analysis of media spin and distortion

Parenti, Michael. Inventing Reality. St. Martin’s Press. N.Y. 1993.
An analysis of media spin

“Things That Are Not In the Constitution”
Examines myths about constitutional rights

“Seventeen Techniques of Truth Suppression,” by Dave Martin
Text available at
Outlines the subtle and not-so-subtle dialectic techniques used to silence dissent

Project Censored
Project Censored works to teach students and the public about the role of free press in a free society – and to tell the News That Didn’t Make the News and Why.

ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union)
The ACLU is our nation’s guardian of liberty, working daily in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country.

Electronic Privacy Information Center
Details issues and legislation regarding electronic privacy

Freire, Paulo. Cultural Action for Freedom. Harvard Ed. Review Pub. Cambridge, MA. 2000.

Freire, Paulo and Macedo, Donaldo. Literacy: Reading the Word and the World. Routledge, N.Y. 1987.

Macedo, Donaldo, de Freitas Sorza, Ana Lucia, Park, Peter. Daring to Dream. Paradigm. N.Y. 2007.

Committee to Protect Journalists
CPJ is an independent, nonprofit organization founded in 1981. They promote press freedom worldwide by defending the rights of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal.

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