The issues of censorship and media freedom are complex and instructive.
Studying them in an ESL context can be very rewarding and, if handled with sensitivity and balance, such discussions can enlighten and engage students from every background. Every government practices some form of censorship or imposes for some kind of restriction on free speech; it is interesting to consider why this happens, what its effects might be, and whether or not it achieves its aims. Certainly, the teacher must be careful not to appear to be criticizing those nations with state controlled media, or strong restrictions on journalistic activity; I believe it is possible to teach and discuss these topics without alienating anyone.
Discuss Controversial Issues Freely
A Starting Point: What Might Be Censored, and How?
Begin with a brainstorm which will list the types of media or behavior which are sometimes censored. Teach vocabulary as it arises and be sure to check understanding in a number of different ways Your list could include:
TV programs, radio shows, movies, pop music, books, magazine articles, websites, certain public speakers, certain meaningful gestures
Elicit examples and methods of censorship. For example, certain movies are banned by being denied a rating by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) or the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Gestures such as the ‘Mockingjay’ protest symbol are made illegal by government, with offenders liable to arrest. Racist, homophobic or otherwise incendiary public speakers are charged with incitement, or perhaps deported. Nudity on TV is pixilated; gratuitous scenes might be cut from movies.
First Discussion: Is Censorship Ever Appropriate?
In pairs, ask the students to list circumstances where censorship might be the best response. Depending on the demographics of the class, you’ll receive a broad variety of answers. Typical responses include:
- To protect young viewers from adult content
- To prevent people seeing gratuitously violent imagery which may desensitize them to war
- To avoid the spread of disinformation about a person, historical event or government policy
- To protect the integrity of a criminal trial (e.g. it is unlikely that Bill Cosby will be able to receive a fair trial, whatever you may think of his behavior, due to the wide public dissemination of heavily skewed portions of the evidence)
- To avoid a scandal; this could be a personal affair (drugs, extramarital relations, distasteful behavior) or a political scandal (corruption, nepotism, vote-rigging)
Note: I have occasionally found that students from China espouse the suppression of news which might badly embarrass the government; they see a strong and united government, with broad and continuous public support, as a major pillar of China’s recent growth and economic success. I would not recommend arguing the point; I did so, both in China and the US, and simply hardened their attitudes while unwittingly constructing a barrier between the students and myself, as they now saw me as potentially ‘anti-China’. However you may feel about the issue, railing against it will change nothing.
Interview / Discovery
I am always fascinated to see students exploring each other’s points of view and cultural background, especially in racially diverse classes. Organize the students into diverse pairs or groups, and then set up an interview with assigned or brainstormed questions such as:
- In your country, which is the most popular way to receive news?
- Do you believe that government should have the right to censor news which embarrasses them?
- If a journalist writes a story which is totally untrue, what should happen to the journalist?
- How popular are celebrity news magazines in your country? Can their stories be trusted?
- Is there a ratings system (like the BFCC and MPAA) in your country? What are the different levels? Do some ratings require that you are accompanied by an adult?
- Can you think of a film or book from your country which was banned (or censored in part)?
Although there are plenty of genuine cases, it can be a fun challenge to create fictitious examples of contentious movies, books and websites, to see how your students react to the notion of censorship in each case. Consider those aspects which tend to results in a ban:
- Gratuitous sex and/or nudity (especially when it plays no genuine, artistic role)
- Graphic violence (ditto)
- Glorifications of hatred, racism, anti-Semitism, etc
- Scenes of drug use (particularly those explicit enough to be copied, or so positive that they may encourage the audience to try drugs)
Here are two of my favorite hypotheticals, both very much based on existing media; the strength of using a fictitious example is that it avoids any national, racial or artistic prejudices the students might bring to the discussion:
Silent Assassins, a fast-paced action movie, has been criticized for containing gratuitous violence. Although it has a strong plot and the acting is pretty good, there are a number of extremely gruesome murders. One character is slowly strangled, another has his head cut off, and whole rooms full of bodyguards are killed with a sword. The movie was called ‘endlessly bloody’ by one critic; he complained that his wife was unable to watch the whole film, and chose to leave after an hour.
High on Life is an independent European film which follows a group of students as they try to finish their exams. In order to stay awake, they use a variety of drugs, which have both remarkably useful effects and a number of disturbing, negative results. Drug use is shown in a lot of detail, and critics insist that young people would easily be able to copy the behavior. Furthermore, the film doesn’t do enough to warn of the dangers of drugs, they insist, and there have been calls for these scenes to be cut from the film.
Most of our students are young people, for whom the Internet has always been available. I feel that it’s particularly important to encourage youngsters to think carefully about the wealth of information, possibilities and dangers presented by the Internet. Interview questions could include:
- Did / do your parents try to limit your Internet use? If so, how?
- Do you believe, as the United Nations does, that access to the Internet is a basic human right?
- Do you believe that NetNanny and similar software is an appropriate reaction to the dangers of the Internet?
- What do you believe might be a suitable punishment for misuse of the Internet?
- If one of your favorite news sites or blogs became unavailable because of something it had published, how would you react?
My students have gained a lot from carrying out short research tasks and then presenting their findings to the class. This practices a range of skills – reading, synthesis, critical judgment, writing and presenting – and tends to form part of my continuous assessment system. Possible topics include:
- Find a movie and/or a video game which has been banned in your country or region. Why was it banned? By whom? Was the ban ever lifted?
- Several video games have been banned, or dramatically changed, to conform to local preferences or laws. Examples include Command and Conquer: Generals, some or all of the Grand Theft Auto series, some or all of the Leisure Suit Larry series and Call of Duty: World at War. Choose one and explain briefly why the game was controversial. How have different countries have reacted to their content?
- The satirical comedy classic Monty Python’s Life of Brian has caused lasting controversy due to accusations of blasphemy. Trace this controversy and give examples of its detractors.
- The short film Innocence of Muslims caused uproar in the Islamic world. Chart the development of this controversy. What are the latest developments?
- Research the so-called ‘Great Firewall of China’. What are its purposes? How effective has it been? Are there any methods of circumventing the firewall?
- YouTube has come under fire in a wide variety of ways and in many of the world’s countries. Find an example where YouTube was criticized for hosting a video, and describe the case.
- A surprising number of the great works of literature have received bans, either temporary or permanent, in a variety of places. Choose one example and tell the class about it:
- D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928)
- Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955)
- George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Animal Farm (1945)
- Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988)
- Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961)
- Less great, but still surprisingly banned, has been Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003) – where, and why?
There are endless opportunities for engaging debates on censorship. These can be informal discussions or student-led seminars, could be based on a student presentation or on watching a movie (preferably not a banned one!), a documentary or a YouTube clip, or organized more formally. They are suitable both for in-class debates, and for research and writing topics. I have set them as term paper questions, and conversely spent twenty minutes informally chatting about them with advanced groups. Potential topics include:
- In your opinion, who should have the power to ban or censor movies? Should this be a government department, or a group influenced by the church, or an independent group? Who should take part in this group? Should its decisions apply permanently, or for a limited period of time?
- “I’m not just a childish robot who copies everything he sees. I know right from wrong. Stop interfering with the media I consume and let me make my own choices.” Do you agree with this point of view? Can the contemporary public be relied on to make intelligent moral decisions?
- What do you think happens to the reputation of a movie when it is banned? Do you think it makes people more curious to see it, or does it keep audiences away?
- Is it important for several different, perhaps contrasting, points of view to be represented in journalism? Could a single source (e.g. a government or media mogul) ever be trusted to provide balanced news?
- Are you concerned at the rise of giant media ‘empires’ with global influence? What might be the implications if a small group of these companies comes to dominate world media?
- How might the Internet play a role in the ‘democratization’ of media? Can we expect to see ‘citizen journalists’ producing more than a tiny fraction of a day’s news?
- How do you know when you can trust a piece of news? Does this depend on the journalist, the forum, the media and its ownership, the nationality of the people involved...?
- Do you believe there is a danger that soldiers who play violent video games as children may become somewhat ‘desensitized’ to warfare, and therefore more likely to ‘shoot first and ask questions later’?
- If a video game rewards criminality (e.g. Grand Theft Auto), is it possible that the player might regard crime as somehow more acceptable, leading to poor decisions in the future?
The issue of censorship connects to more, even larger and equally fascinating issues relating to freedom, government interference, the power of media to change behavior, issues of Internet and gaming addiction, and perhaps also how democracy might operate in the digital age.
For upper-intermediate and advanced classes, these topics have provided terrific food for thought, and also numerous integrated practice opportunities, resulting in both important critical thinking, and the use of high-level vocabulary and structures. I hope that your classes benefit from an open discussion of these topics, and come to understand their importance as we proceed into the 21st century.