Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2023

Course Description

What are the limits of free speech? When does legitimate speech turn into obscenity, sacrilege, or even sedition? While the emergence of liberal democracy in the 18th and 19th centuries might lead us to presume that artists and writers can now prioritize their own creative visions over the demands of society or the state, the last 150 years has witnessed a proliferation of highly developed censorship regimes across the world, from the Hollywood “Production Code” in the United States to state-run media in the People’s Republic of China. This course will explore what happens to the universal human need to give life meaning by telling stories in the context of restricted freedom of expression. Focusing on the narrative media of fiction, drama, and film, we will study both rule breakers and creative compilers: artists who whose work was penalized for breaking the official or unofficial rules of what can be expressed as well as artists who found creative ways to produce socially conscientious works that outwardly complied with regimes of censorship. After a brief introduction to liberal ideas about freedom of speech, the course will then focus on the three main targets of attempts to limit artistic expression: sex (obscenity), politics (sedition), and religion (sacrilege). We will then conclude with a brief unit on the question of art and “cancel culture.” Assigned materials will include plays by Alexandre Dumas fils, Holly Hughes, and Oscar Wilde; fiction and poetry by Anna Akhmatova, Isabel Allende, Rashid Jahan, and Salman Rushdie; and films by Howard Hawks, Zhang Yuan, Wanuri Kahiu, Gillo Pontecorvo, Jafar Panahi, Luis Buñuel, and Marjane Satrapi.

Student Outcomes

English student outcomes
As a W-certified course, the aim of this course is twofold: to teach students to think critically and fluently about how political and religious institutions shape the stories artists can tell about social life and human experience, and to further cultivate the academic writing skills that began to be developed in first-year seminar. These general objectives break down into the following aims:
By the end of this course, students will be able to:

  • Recognize key elements of narrative art and the distinctive ways different media (namely film, drama, and fiction) tell stories;
  • Explain how different political and religious institutions across the globe have impacted artists’ freedom of expression;
  • Integrate your knowledge of narrative technique and the political conditions of artistic creativity by interpreting how these conditions impact what stories assigned texts (and how they’re told);
  • Compare theories of censorship with artistic practice under censorship with evidence provided by the assigned readings and films;
  • Demonstrate your acquisition of this knowledge by composing analytical essays that also showcase your growing understanding of the conventions of academic writing;
  • And produce a research essay that integrates analysis of narrative technique with primary and secondary sources to advance a strong argument in response to a clear research question.

Arts & Humanities student outcomes

By the end of this course, students will be able to critically observe and analyze how the worlds imagined in modern fiction, theatre, and film are shaped by and intervene in the circumstances impacting freedom of expression in their respective communities of origin.

Global Learning student outcomes
By the end of this course, students will:

  • Understand the perspectives and voices of specific people and places outside of the U.S., particularly how different political regimes and religious institutions across the globe have impacted artists;
  • Understand and analyze the complex historical relationships between cultures and identities in a globalized framework through situating narrative works of art within their respective political and social environments, which have often reflected exchange, competition, and/or exploitation between different nation states;
  • Practice self-reflection and sensitivity toward cultural difference through in-class activities that invite students to recognize and examine their globally-situated identities and responsibilities.

W-Competency student outcomes
By the end of this course, students will be able to:

  • Compose essays characterized by a logical development of argument, clear and precise diction, and a coherent prose style;
  • Identify and apply the rules which govern the responsible, appropriate and effective use of sources.

Remember that course objectives are aspirational rather than contractual. Enrolling in this course does not ensure that you will be able to fulfill the learning goals. Instead, the course is designed so that you can reasonably expect to be able to perform the competencies above if you put in the effort required by the course.