What Does Free Expression Mean?

The post-Communist world presented a chance for new moral leaders to emerge in countries formerly under Soviet rule. Since there were no professional or career politicians, this gave intellectuals an opportunity to enter into politics to introduce a new spirit into the governmental process. Enter Vaclav Havel, a Czechoslovakian playwright who was a perennial victim of state repression under Communist rule. In 1989, Havel was elected the first non-Communist president of the Czech Republic in more than 40 years.

Václav Havel was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1936. He completed his required education in 1951, but the Communist government did not allow him to continue to study formally because of his bourgeois background.

Havel wrote more than 20 plays and many works of nonfiction in his literary career. He was also a perennial victim of state repression under Communist rule, a fact that permeated his writing. He became famous for the human rights manifesto “Charter 77,” and his 1978 work, “The Power of the Powerless,” is considered among the best political essays ever written. In late 1989, Communist rule came to an end during the Velvet Revolution, followed by the reestablishment of a democratic parliamentary republic. Havel became the 10th and last president of Czechoslovakia. In a total of 13 years as president, he led Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic to an open democracy. He was also one of the first to sign the 2008 Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism.

Václav Havel came to be seen as the soul of the Czech nation, armed with a strong moral compass and the honest voice of a dissident. He died in 2011 at the age of 75.

By studying the Universal Declaration of Human Rights article on freedom of opinion and information, as well as interviews and writings of Havel, students will recognize the importance of maintaining free expression as a universal human right and as the foundation of a democratic society and examine and analyze the role of writers, poets, playwrights, journalists, and essayists in the maintenance of free expression as a human right.

In the “Become a Defender” portion of the lesson, students will 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. They will also compile a list of journalists and others whose right to freedom of expression has been repressed both domestically and internationally and invite them to be guest writers for their website.

Because all the activities involve independent or group research that can be done online, this lesson plan fits into either virtual or in-person classrooms, with opportunities for discussion and collaboration on Zoom or with classmates.