The right to know? A lesson on the freedom of information

As the incarceration of Bradley Manning has surpassed one thousand days, and the buzz surrounding wikileaks amplifies daily, it seemed like a good time to incorporate themes relating to “freedom of information”  into the classroom. I have thus far done it twice, in grades 9 + 10 Humanities, and the results have been very positive.

The plan:

As the kids are arranging themselves into their seats, the following video plays (begin at 1:55) on the whiteboard. The crackling of the walkie-talkies, and the subsequent gunshots, guarantee full and immediate attention:

When the video of soldiers firing on Iraqi’s, titled “collateral murder,” ends, stop the video and pose the following dilemma to the class:

“Imagine you are in the military and you have access to top secret government documents. You discover the video clip we just watched. You believe it is an act of murder, a war-crime. Do you release it to the public”?

Have the students discuss the dilemma in pairs, or small groups. Give them 3-5 minutes and have them present their ideas to the class.

The results in my class were mixed. Some argued they would keep them secret, others that they would release, others that they would release, but anonymously, others that they would release, but upon their death, to avoid incarceration.

I then returned to the video, to provide a context for the dilemma. After the students learn a bit more about who Bradley Manning was, why he released the documents, and why he was turned in and accused of treason, we return to the debate. Many students changed their mind after learning more about the context. (We also discussed the source of the documentary, to see if the documentary was favoring one side of the debate over the other. I recommend you do the same.)

This lesson, however short, ignited discussion on profound and important themes:

  • Should “freedom of information” have its limits, and if so , what are they? 
  • Can a “patriot” love their country, but very much dislike their government?
  • How can someone be an “informed citizen,” if they only know part of what their government is doing?
  • Does a tax-payer have the right to know where their money is being spent?
  • Does revealing troop movements put national security at greater risk than the waging of the war itself?
  • What, precisely, does “national security” even mean?

To connect this event to the past, we will next be studying Daniel Ellsburg and his leaking of the Pentagon Papers in the 1970’s. We have already discussed the Vietnam War, and have some knowledge of the U.S. bombings and invasion of Cambodia from 1969-75, which D. Ellsburg made public.

Ultimately, my grade 1o will be doing a class debate on the motion: “True democracy requires citizens to know what their government is doing.” They will need to support their arguments, both those in favor of the motion, and against, with reference to B. Manning and D. Ellsburg.

So, if you are looking for a timely lesson, touching on social media, democracy, citizenship, freedom, history, ethics, law, and other significant Humanities concepts, give it a whirl! And please let me know how it goes…

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