California Forum

Terrorist act can help teach students about our important liberties

People holding placards reading “I am Charlie,” take part in a silent march in Nice, France, on Jan. 10 for victims of the shooting at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Ten journalists and two police officers were killed in a terrorist attack at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris.
People holding placards reading “I am Charlie,” take part in a silent march in Nice, France, on Jan. 10 for victims of the shooting at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Ten journalists and two police officers were killed in a terrorist attack at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris. The Associated Press

The brutal massacre of 10 journalists and two police officers in Paris recently shocked and outraged us. The attack reminds us once again of the fragility and importance of one of our most important liberties: freedom of expression, and more specifically, freedom of the press.

World leaders and commentators will debate the significance of the attack. The French government and its people will have to reflect upon the impact of the murders on its society, culture and way of life, just as we did after 9/11.

Despite the miles that separate France from the United States, the massacre will impact our classrooms. Our students have learned of the Paris attacks through traditional and new forms of media. They have seen the hashtag JeSuisCharlie – I am Charlie. And they will have questions.

This terrible moment will provide us with yet another opportunity to help our students understand a confusing and, at times, very scary world. These conversations will not be easy, as none of us can explain why people rationalize murder.

However, difficult conversations are absolutely what our students need. Whether or not we openly discuss terrorism, massacres and radicalism in class, this is the context of their lives. They will be more prepared to combat intolerance and extremism as adults if they have had time as adolescents to discuss the consequences of violence and consider how they as individuals can help protect a fundamental right.

One thing that can help in these conversations is context. Students need to understand that the right to free expression is one that has been challenged for many, many years.

Throughout the world, authoritarian governments have sought to limit freedom of the press and the right of individuals to speak freely. Students need to know about the English bill of rights’ challenge to monarchical rule, John Peter Zenger’s quest for freedom of the press during colonial times, and John Locke’s impact on our own Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.

Students should also study significant case law on freedom of the press, such as Near v. Minnesota, a 1931 case that outlawed the government’s practice of prior restraint, and New York Times v. United States, the famous 1971 Pentagon Papers case. And while reporters in the United States are relatively safe today, journalists routinely face imprisonment in other countries, including Syria, Egypt, China and Iran.

Students need to understand that the threat to free expression is not always state-sponsored. The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo join a long and tragic list of reporters, photographers and commentators who have been murdered by intolerant and desperate factions in response to their reporting or simply as representatives of free societies that the factions hate.

In 2002, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was killed in Pakistan, where he was investigating links between shoe-bomber Richard Reid and al-Qaida. Last February, Gregorio Jiménez de la Cruz, a reporter in Veracruz, Mexico, was abducted and killed by local men who allegedly have ties to organized crime. And in August, freelance journalist James Foley was beheaded by the Islamic State in response to U.S. airstrikes in Iraq.

Providing students with this context won’t make things better immediately, of course. They will still struggle to understand why, to make sense of something that defies understanding. But there is something helpful and hopeful in the truth. Freedom of expression demands constant vigilance for its preservation. We must encourage our students to value the fundamental right to speak one’s mind, to offend and to challenge those who believe they are above the law.

Nancy McTygue is executive director of the California History-Social Science Project at the University of California, Davis.

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