Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 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, C.L.R. James, and Oscar Wilde; fiction by Anna Akhmatova, Isabel Allende, J.M. Coetzee, Rashid Jahan, and Salman Rushdie; and films by Howard Hawks, Zhang Yuan, Wanuri Kahiu, Gillo Pontecorvo, Jafar Panahi, and Marjane Satrapi.