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Media, Free Speech, & The Paradox of Democracy

Posted by on Aug 30, 2022 in Blog | Comments Off on Media, Free Speech, & The Paradox of Democracy



“It’s better to think of democracy less as a government type and more as an open communicative culture.” Media and free speech can both nurture and hinder democratic practice, according to The Paradox of Democracy. Find out how.


  • Students will assess arguments made by Zac Gershberg and Sean Illing in The Paradox of Democracy.
  • Students will create mind maps distinguishing between the affordances and limitations of TV, print media, and social media. 
  • Students will strategize ways to support “open communicative culture” in their classroom, school, and community.

Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.6 Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.1Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.5 Analyze how a text uses structure to emphasize key points or advance an explanation or analysis.


90 minutes

Materials / resources

Transcript of Ezra Klein’s NYT Podcast with Sean Illing


Pens and/or markers, different colors

Lesson step-by-step

Step 1 — Framing/Introduction (5 minutes)

Open class with a short, catalyzing discussion:

  • Does media and free speech help or hinder democracy? How and/or why? Give an example to support your opinion.

This could be a discussion, an independent “Do Now” activity, and/or a private writing assignment in a journal.

Step 2 — Mind Map: TV, Print Media, and Social Media (10 minutes)

On a piece of paper, students draw mind maps to brainstorm the affordances and limitations of different types of media: TV, print, and social media. What kinds of thinking or behaviors do these media encourage? What does it take to be successful on these platforms? How effective are they at shaping public opinion?

Step 3 — Ezra Klein Podcast (30 to 45 minutes)

The teacher guides students through the transcript, or even audio excerpts, of Ezra Klein’s podcast. As students listen or read, they annotate their mind maps in a different color to note Klein and Illing’s ideas and arguments about media, power, and politics.

Teachers may choose to focus on one of the excerpts included after this lesson, below, in the Appendix.

Step 4 — Discussion (15 minutes)

According to Illing, how exactly does media and free speech both help and hinder democratic practices, or “open communicative culture?” Why is this understanding important for democracy?

Step 5 — Strategize (20 minutes)

In groups, choose a school-wide issue and brainstorm a media approach to reporting on it. How will your chosen media help to support your focus? How will you connect with your audience and build trust? How will your work negotiate an information space that “has been shattered into a zillion pieces thanks to the internet”? How will your work be effectively persuasive?


Depending on time, students could listen to the podcast. Listening to the podcast could be assigned as homework before the class meeting, then students may come to class ready to discuss. This lesson could lead to pitches. Teachers might work with students to brainstorm strategies to educate the community about first amendment rights and social issues throughout the year.

Appendix: Excerpts

  • Ezra Klein: We tend to think of liberal democracies, but that’s only one possibility. You can have illiberal democracies. Democracies can vote themselves into fascism. Democracy doesn’t guarantee you any particular outcome. And so what drives a democracy, what decides what it becomes or what it stays is that open communicative culture, the way its members learn about the world, debate it, and ultimately persuade each other to change it or not change it…
  • Sean Illing: But [Neil Postman] argues that print has these pretty clear biases because of the nature of the medium. It’s slower, it’s more deliberative, more demanding. It’s linear, it’s the domain of ideas, of abstract thought. Or at least it tends toward that. I think some of these distinctions that these ecologists make between different mediums maybe a little too neat. But the core point is right. But TV, unlike print, is not a medium that encourages rational thinking. It is all about action and imagery… 
  • Sean Illing: Yeah, we go through this — sort of the book is kind of moving through history, lurching from one revolution in media to another. And we start in and Athens and Rome, both societies that were formed in large part by speech and rhetoric, but also upended by them. And there’s a printing press where that gets us to the birth of newspapers and books and helps give us the enlightenment, but it also unleashes a devastating religious war that devours the continent…And the thing again about all those revolutions is not that the technologies are good or bad. It’s just that they’re disruptive in very unpredictable ways. Sometimes you get the Arab Spring and sometimes you get Pizzagate. But they changed the way a society thinks and orients itself. It changes the way a society relates to each other and to the world. And that has far-reaching complications. It changes us and by extension it has to change our politics…
  • Sean Illing: …Twitter has been I think bad for me personally. I mean, I’ve joked that I’m the worst version of myself on Twitter. But the thing about Twitter, and I’m very curious what you think about this, is that to be on there is to give yourself over to the incentives driving it, attention, virality, the impulse to perform. And I think that’s bad. It blinkers our intuitions, it creates anxieties and pressures that bleed into our work, certainly mine. And for individual writers, it’s kind of become a platform for just personal brand promotion, and that carries its own kinds of perverse incentives…
  • Sean Illing: We’re trying to think of democracy as a communitive culture. We think of democracy as a decision to open up the public sphere and let people speak, think and decide what ought to be done. So in that sense, it is a culture of open communication. And thinking of it as a culture rather than a constellation of practices or institutions is not a pedantic or academic thing. We’re trying to emphasize the open-endedness of it, the fact that it’s always in a state of becoming. And the fact that you can say that a state is Democratic and the fact that doesn’t necessarily tell you how it’s governed is pretty instructive, right? I mean, it’s not for nothing that fascism has only ever emerged out of Democratic societies. There’s something about the collision of mass media and mass politics that made fascism possible…
  • Ezra Klein: So tell me then about what you call “the paradox of democracy.”

Sean Illing: Well, it’s the fact that the very thing that makes democracy possible, which is wide open, free expression that while that’s a condition of democracy, it can also be hijacked and turned against it. And that’s what fascism is. So the thing that makes it possible is also the thing that threatens it from within. And that tension or that paradox is baked into the structure of democracy if you see it in that way. There’s just no transcending that, right? If you’re going to open up society, then you’re opening the culture up to all manner of persuasion, all manner of rhetoric, the inspirational leaders and the bullshit artists and the demagogues and any other manner of bad faith actor you can imagine. It is a free-for-all in that way… 

  • Sean Illing: But if you take media ecology seriously, then you start with a media environment and then notice how it favors certain kinds of rhetorical appeals or incentivize a certain styles of communication. And then notice how that in turn, influences public opinion, right?… 
  • Sean Illing: I think a lot of the people who are deeply worried about cancel culture don’t reflect enough on what’s actually happening on these bigger questions we’re talking about here. Again, it feels very suffocating, but it really is just I think a culture of free speech doing what a culture of free speech does, unleashing lots of different voices, lots of different opinions, lots of different styles of communication, lots of disputes about where the lines are. And it’s playing itself out…
  • Sean Illing: Tools like the wheel or the hammer are used instrumentally. Those are extensions of our feet and hands, extensions of our physical capabilities. But McLuhan insisted that electronic media is an extension of our nervous system. So our ability to experience what is happening isn’t limited by our bodies. We can know what’s happening anywhere, everywhere, all the time. And I think his point was that our brains weren’t equipped to deal with this much stimuli, this much information. And whatever cognitive tools we developed over time to deal with information, to organize our experience in the world, we’re going to be totally overwhelmed by the electric revolution…
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Ten First Amendment Court Cases

Posted by on Aug 30, 2022 in Blog | Comments Off on Ten First Amendment Court Cases



3. Reaffirmed that public universities cannot punish students for indecent or offensive speech that does not disrupt campus order or interfere with the rights of others.

  1. Justice Abe Fortas stated that it “can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
  2. School officials in Kansas did not violate the First Amendment rights of a middle school student when they suspended him for drawing a picture of the Confederate flag in math class… the drawing violated the school’s racial harassment and intimidation policy
  3. This case affirmed public college students’ First Amendment rights of free speech and association
  4. Schools may restrict what is published in student newspapers if the papers have not been established as public forums


  1. A public university that funds student-run publications cannot engage in viewpoint discrimination by denying funding to select publications based on the particular views expressed in those publications.
  2. Pennsylvania high school officials lacked the authority to discipline a student for an off-campus, vulgar Snapchat post that she made in frustration after not making the varsity cheerleading squad.
  1. Public school officials can prohibit student speech that is vulgar, lewd, or plainly offensive.
  2. Often referred to as the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case, the Supreme Court ruled that it is not a denial of the First Amendment right to free speech for public school officials to censor student speech that they reasonably believe encourages illegal drug use.

8. Extended Hazelwood’s framework “to subsidized student newspapers at colleges as well as elementary and secondary schools.”

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Constitution Day 2022

Posted by on Aug 30, 2022 in Blog | Comments Off on Constitution Day 2022


JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Committee hopes to help you and your students celebrate their free speech rights this year. Constitution Day, observed Sept. 17 each year in commemoration of the signing of the United States Constitution, is an excellent time to do it. 

• We have a quick court cases-review crossword to help you and your students audit if your coverage was as comprehensive as you’d like.

Check out the links, below, for more information on each activity. Feel free to make use of the materials anytime during the weeks before or after Constitution Day. They could be launching points for your own ideas to focus on student speech rights.

Gauging Community Attitudes Towards First Amendment Rights (by Mark Dzula): The Knight Foundation surveys teens and teachers’ attitudes towards freedom of speech. Gauge your community’s attitudes towards first amendment rights as you prepare to advocate for the First Amendment.

Ten First Amendment Court Cases (by Mark Dzula): From the classic, key decisions to ne newer and still coming into importance, this quiz will give you a base of information–and a challenge. (And there is a key)

In search of a free and fair press (by Candace Bowen, MJE): Democracy is based on an informed electorate going to the polls to choose its leaders. Only a free and fair press can make that possible. If news media include slanted views and bias, readers can be unknowingly swayed to believe something that may not be true. That hurts democracy. To help students read more critically, compare two news articles about the same event and start developing the skills to spot ways some media may be giving readers a slanted view.

Media, Free Speech, & The Paradox of Democracy (by Mark Dzula): It’s better to think of democracy less as a government type and more as an open communicative culture.” Media and free speech can both nurture and hinder democratic practice, according to The Paradox of Democracy. Find out how.

• In addition to this new material, check out our numerous lessons and activities from previous years: 2021, 20202019201820172016201520142013.

This is also a great time to review student press rights particular to your community. How aware are your students of their own editorial policy? School board policy? Guidelines for ethical performance and meaningful, all-encompassing staff manual? How about the existence (or lack thereof) of a New Voices law? Are there ways your students could strengthen or improve their specific protections? You can always check out additional resources on this website or the Student Press Law Center.

Constitution Day Contributors

CD Day 2022

Mark Dzula, the Webb Schools (CA)

Kristin Taylor, CJE, The Archer School for Girls (CA)

Candace Bowen, MJE, Kent State University (OH)

John Bowen, MJE, Kent State University (OH)

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Rethinking journalism as it enters a period of transition, including accuracy and truth

Posted by on Aug 14, 2022 in Blog | 0 comments


Given the extraordinary events of the past three years, and ones now historically burnt into community memory, student journalists’ assignment sheets must now develop new concepts of story value and focus … from context to what local means in coverage

by John Bowen, MJE

With a new school year come new friends, opportunities and responsibilities. Some are memorable, at least for a while, because they stand out.

An example is Sept. 11, 2001, both for national events and for local ones that followed. Students then faced difficult content decisions. In some cases, these were obligations to localize national events but also to focus on their local issues and implications. 

Typically, school story choices can be difficult because not all student media have a history of such reporting. After all, students are drilled with the concept these are “the best years of our lives,” and not to events that call for depth and issue reporting.

Given the extraordinary events of the past three years, and ones now historically burned into community memory, student journalists’ assignment sheets must develop new concepts of story value and focus.

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What’s old is still new

Posted by on May 26, 2022 in Blog | Comments Off on What’s old is still new


by Stan Zoller, MJE

man love people woman

Another step in removing the shackles

Hawaii is the sixteenth state to pass New Voices protection recently. The task to protect all student news media is not new and is unfinished. The signing in Hawaii is a huge success, but there is still a long way to go. Today’s students represent a new generation, but their voices aren’t new – they’re continuing – as is the struggle for press freedom. Photo by Kindel Media on

Amidst the recent onslaught of disturbing news stories – whether it’s the carnage in Ukraine, the killing of 10 shoppers in grocery story or the gut-wrenching and senseless murders of 19 fourth-grade students and two teachers in a Texas elementary school – we try to look for a ray, if possible, of good news.

It’s not easy. 

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‘Passion project’ brings forum policy, student decision making through process, trust

Posted by on May 16, 2022 in Blog | Comments Off on ‘Passion project’ brings forum policy, student decision making through process, trust


by John Bowen, MJE

What a private school adviser called a “passion project” for journalism students and herself during the pandemic became a model for other schools, public and private, to work to limit the damage censorship brings to education.

What they successfully developed is an example of a process designed so a school has a method to avoid conflict over student media content and viewpoint leadership by building a process through discussion and trust.

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