Teaching Free Speech in Times of War

Reading about the issues of the day, in French, offers new perspectives to students and their professor, writes Helen Solterer.

September 6, 2007

That Tuesday, my colleague Michèle caught me in the hallway to tell me that something was up in New York. “Had I heard the nine o’clock news on the radio?”

Walking into the classroom, I discovered my students on their cell phones talking to family and friends, trying to get information.

In that second week of classes, we were reading Murderous Identities (1998), in French. (It was about to come out in English as In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong.) I had decided to start the semester with Amin Maalouf, a Franco-Lebanese writer, because his work explores connections between the ways we see ourselves and language. I was looking forward to hearing what the students had made of his chief idea: those who feel threatened or violated in their own home are often those who commit massacres. Lebanon’s civil war had taught Maalouf how young men and women turned violent when they could no longer communicate confidently who they are, when they were forced to choose between parts of themselves, identifying either as “Arab” or “Muslim,” “Lebanese” or “Christian.” That day we were set to debate.

Instead, in a moment, I realized that any discussion was impossible. We disbanded and went downstairs to the language lab where on the television we saw the second tower collapsing in a plume of smoke and debris.

The rest of that day on campus was quiet; I have never heard silence speak so loudly.


In the fall of 2001, I began teaching a seminar, “History of Free Speech: France-USA.” I had wanted to introduce students in French courses to the two traditions together, to what they shared and how they differed. It had been a while since any course on freedom of expression had been offered to undergraduates, and the comparative approach had never been tried. I was ready to experiment. But from one day to the next, current events demanded that my syllabus respond to what was happening around us, and to us.

The shock of that morning hit so hard that I can’t recall whether we finished discussing Murderous Identities or not. But I do remember how disappointed the class was that we couldn’t benefit from Maalouf joining our discussion. He had planned a trip to Durham for early October, and cancelled the week that the United States invaded Afghanistan.

Equally clear to me is the decision I made overnight: The class had to do weekly news briefs. Everyone took turns analyzing an article in the French-language press that reported what was happening in our country, and elsewhere.

My goal was to get the students tracking what those outside the United States were noticing: the solidarity, concern, and growing wariness over American reactions to the attacks on New York and Washington. I was determined to get them to think with the French-speaking world. These were people who, like them, prided themselves on a tradition that had also declared the principle of free speech inviolable, and defended its practice. They too had grappled terribly with it being manipulated by their next-door neighbors and political leaders during times of foreign aggression and internal conflict.

Week by week, we pursued our original inquiry into the struggles shaping the French commitment to la liberté d’expression. We studied Voltaire launching public debate when citizens of minority religions were scapegoated; we looked at Rabelais confronting clerical censorship; we considered how Céline championed Rabelais in his misguided attempts to justify hate speech; we even traced out the long record of inquisition and the efforts of philosophers Heloise and Abelard to outmaneuver it. Deeper and deeper the students delved, investigating what had provoked the fight for open communication and independent media.

Week by week, we also continued analyzing press accounts of the 9/11 aftermath. A woman from the mountains of North Carolina brought in an article from Poitiers in the center of France headlined: “We all are New Yorkers.” Many of the students were surprised that the French wanted to call themselves Americans, and were touched. Someone else shared a commentary on the search to identify the foreign enemies: who exactly were the Taliban, and why did they express hatred for Westerners. The New Jersey-ite in the group zeroed in on reports that many of those who died in the twin towers, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field came from Asia, Latin America, as well as the Middle East.

I watched the students drill down into history, and venture out across the French-speaking world. Both explorations brought them into the unknown. A Québécois reporting on le onze septembre jeopardizing his world sounded just as strangely as a comic opera calling for freedom of the press at the court of Louis XVI. There were days when everything seemed too hard: the world of 12th-century Paris was just too alien, the fact that our country was going to war just too frightening. But we kept on talking, in French. I counted on going into class every week to find out how meshing the history of the fight over free speech with that day’s news might help.

By semester’s end, with the U.S. bombing Kandahar, the students wrote final exams that crackled with insight. They raised questions that the mainline press was just beginning to formulate, and with which we are still tussling.

What is the effect of speaking out as an American on those of Arab background and Muslim belief in our midst? The social pressure was strong enough to tie their tongues, the student argued, and to endanger their sense of selves. She had adapted Maalouf’s idea to the predicament of her country.

Did those supporting the Taliban feel overwhelmed by our modern culture of computers and cell phones? asked another. Was the West and so-called American values menacing their vision of themselves? He caught a “murderous identity” in the act of being created.

Were I only to call myself Puerto Rican, a third hypothesized, would I be deadening other parts of myself? Could I resemble those who commit massacres? This junior had taken the challenge to examine the expression of identity personally.

If I were Arab, imagined the science major in our group, I would explain all that identity means to other Americans. She took Maalouf’s argument to heart. By assuming the condition of someone whom she did not really know and probably misunderstood, she was testing out a new voice to keep discussion flowing.

All this thinking was taking place in a language that was not the students’ own. I was heartened not only by what they were expressing, but how they were doing so. No matter how awkward or imperfect their French, they were using it to explore what they were trying to understand and, as one emphasized, what she could never know. Foreign language requirement aside, they had chosen to speak and write about free speech through someone else’s tradition. Even for the Hispanics in the class as well as others accustomed to a multi-lingual life abroad, composing their thoughts à la française meant migrating towards another world.

I came away from that seminar all the more committed to keeping the Franco-American comparison going. I saw how taking the long view of history, what the French call the longue durée, was steadying for this group. I saw how it gave them bearings, as well as tools for hearing more attentively what more people around the world were saying post 9/11. At the end of exam week, I ran into a student who in September had spoken out of patriotism about vengeance. Three months later, she confessed, she was starting to think again. I wondered what more time would enable her to see, what I and the other students would come to recognize.


The next time I taught the course, we were living in a climate of protracted war abroad and at home. Five years later, the American military was dug in across Iraq, and the Patriot Act with its compromise of civil liberties was in force. Our state, North Carolina, saw a restaurant owner react so strongly to the French opposition to Bush’s foreign policies that he rechristened a side order he served, Freedom fries. (The Congressional cafeteria followed the lead of Cubbie’s in Beaufort.) As for the students enrolling that semester, 9/11 had struck when they were just starting high school; most of them were conjugating their first French verbs.

2006 began in our class with the kidnapping of Jill Carroll in Baghdad. On the first day, when I proposed monitoring the French and English language coverage of her plight, no one had heard of this journalist from the Christian Science Monitor. I decided to tackle their unawareness. Once again, the course alternated between readings across time periods and weekly bulletins on conditions of freedom of expression today.

As we considered men and women subjected to inquisitorial procedures during the Ancien Régime, we talked about Carroll’s isolation, and our own. It stunned the students to read reports on the Web of French people mobilizing on her behalf in front of the Paris town hall. As we examined Sade’s incarceration in the Bastille and his prison writing, students reported on the little they could find out about journalists turned into pawns. The case of Daniel Pearl was already on our syllabus; it filled me with dread again.

News of Carroll’s release first broke on campus when Christian Chesnot, a freelancer with French International Radio, came to speak. He and Georges Malbrunot of the Parisian daily, the Figaro, were the first Western journalists kidnapped after the American military occupied Iraq. They were held together in solitary confinement for some four months before President Chirac’s government negotiated their release in December 2003. Now Chesnot was on a mission, analyzing the quagmire of Iraq for audiences in Europe and elsewhere, outlining the quandary it posed for anyone vested in freedom of expression.

When I invited him to our class, he was very curious to find out what young Americans at a private university would say about the war. The students cautiously prepared questions for him.

How did he keep his cool in the face of death? Was it true that he started praying? Everyone was drawn first to the personal details of his captivity. Chesnot described the many times he repeated to his captors -- in English -- that he and his partner were not American journalists. Did he have to defend his right to speak freely in a language not his own, I queried our guest, or in franglais, that linguistic mix with a foreign accent? The students laughed nervously. He’s so happy being French, one of them told me later.

But slowly, their questions turned to matters of principle. How was the war on terror changing free speech? Could kidnappings succeed in changing laws in France, for example, the one barring Muslim girls from wearing their headscarves at school? Was there any way to break the cycle of vengeance?

Chesnot thought out loud with the students; he was quick and at ease in all he told us. It was extremely difficult now to gauge the damage done to all the communities involved in this conflict, Middle Eastern, European, American, yet it was foolhardy to ignore that it was worldwide. The French state negotiated with his kidnappers because when it came to the lives of its citizens, there was no limit to what would be done, including working with Muslim communities in France and abroad. Bush’s government at war could not say the same. Journalists around the globe had to find new methods for ensuring the greatest possible access and exchange of news.

Awe, discomfort, resistance: the mix of the class’s reactions was powerful. Many of us were dumbfounded by this boyish journalist who had come out alive from his ordeal and was encouraging everyone to think some more.

How could he oppose the war after all that he had gone through, one student whispered to me as the group gathered up their notebooks and headed out the door. I began to recognize all that I and they could not say or did not know yet how to express. This was not a simple language barrier. It was a question of putting ourselves in his shoes for a moment so as to better fathom our predicament in America.

As we left the building, some of us were accosted by unknown people asking about a legal inquiry into student athletes. Chesnot picked up a copy of the student newspaper so that he could find out what was going on.


To speak with the world in our minds: what a lesson to learn when so much still threatens. It’s a process of opening ourselves up to listen to the millions who through the centuries have spoken under duress. It means making ourselves more aware of what our free speech says to thousands of others beyond the horizon. That is what my students continue to show me day in day out -- whether they arrive in my classroom from my neighborhood, Cameroon, or the Haitian community in Miami. That’s what debating in an uncommon language we choose to share has made clear to me.


Helen Solterer teaches French literature and culture in the Department of Romance Studies at Duke University. Her most recent book, “Medieval Roles for Modern Times,” is under review. Most of the students in this seminar, 2001-07, have graduated. Several are starting their final year, majoring in chemistry, political science, and French.

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