Home » Our Stories » The Value and Limits of Academic Speech » Précis: ‘Words that wound’ in the classroom: Should they be silenced or discussed?
Christina Easton
Christina Easton

Even whilst falling short of hate speech, student speech can deeply wound other students, reinforcing social inequalities and taking us further from an ideal of equal respect and dignity for all. I refer to such speech as ‘words that wound’ (WtW) – speech that, in its context, is likely to cause harm. Given that teachers have special responsibilities to care for the well-being of their students and promote equal educational opportunity, how should teachers react to WtW?

My view is that it is only in a small number of cases that teachers should silence their students’ WtW.1 In most cases, the appropriate response is discussion. This is, perhaps, the common-sense view, but it nonetheless faces some important challenges, which I respond to in my chapter.

Firstly, there is a challenge to provide a consistent defense of a position that advocates silencing for some cases but discussion for others. I respond by explaining what is morally distinctive about the small number of cases where silencing is appropriate.

Secondly, there is a challenge to provide a convincing case for discussion over silencing in the majority of cases. In the chapter, I acknowledge that failing to silence WtW can have costs, such as further activation of stereotype threat potentially damaging equal educational opportunity. However, I argue that in most cases these costs will be outweighed by the benefits of discussion. These benefits include students having the opportunity to respond to harmful views and to practise the skills required for engaging in fruitful, civil political discourse.

Thirdly, there is a practical challenge to provide guidance for teachers on how to apply this theory in the classroom. Emma Arneback (2014) has argued that we should not give moral prescriptions to teachers other than that they attend to context. In response, I argue that attending to context need not mean giving up on providing guidance altogether. The challenge is to be able to make some general statements about how context matters so as to enable some guidance.

It is this third challenge that I focus on in this précis. This is because my claims here are controversial and therefore likely to provoke more discussion, but also because responding to the third challenge has a special urgency. As I discuss in my chapter, empirical research suggests that teachers generally lack confidence over how to respond to potentially harmful speech. As a result, some teachers try to minimise the chances of such speech occurring by avoiding discussion of controversial issues. This is concerning, as these will often be the same issues as those being debated in the democratic sphere. Thinking critically about these issues is therefore an important part of education for civic life. Thus there is a need for teacher guidance on how to identify and respond to wounding speech.

Guidance for teachers

Figure 1 gives a simplification of the thought process that a teacher might go through in making the difficult decision on when to silence.

Figure 1: Should this wounding speech be silenced?


The following examples will help exemplify each step in the flowchart.2

Easy Case: A Political Science lesson is taking place on a topic unrelated to affirmative action. A black student asks the teacher a question. A white student, unimpressed with the question, interrupts with ‘That’s what you get with affirmative action.’

Amended Easy Case: As above, except the lesson topic is affirmative action.

Suicide: During a discussion on euthanasia, Simmy suggests that it may be rational for someone to commit suicide when there is nothing of value in their life. A fellow student’s father recently committed suicide.

Amended Hard Case: A Political Science lesson is taking place on affirmative action, in a mixed-race classroom that includes black students. Charlie (a white student) argues that affirmative action schemes may not benefit the disadvantaged after all, because the beneficiaries of these schemes may struggle to meet the demands of university life.

Nativity Play: A class of 11-year olds are debating whether schools with high numbers of Muslim students should put on Nativity plays at Christmas. Laura suggests that schools should put on Nativity plays because if Muslims don’t like it, they can ‘go home’.

A pre-condition for discussion

The defence of discussion in the chapter ended up hinging on the classroom as a place especially conducive to rational, sensitive discussion. But clearly this does not apply to every classroom. A classroom lacking rules for discussion and led by a teacher with poor behaviour management skills will not be the right environment for rigorous discussion. Nor will a classroom where (through no fault of the teacher) behaviour is so challenging that the minimal level of order required for discussion cannot be achieved. We therefore need a proviso that the teacher has good control of the class and is capable of managing an organised, sensible discussion. He must also be reasonably competent on the subject, since he needs to be able to step in to defend certain views if the discussion goes awry. The teacher must also make a decision about the students’ abilities to engage in discussion; can their students maturely and rationally discuss the particular instance of WtW?

If the right classroom environment is in place, the teacher is in a position to think through the steps in the flowchart. Each question in the flowchart allows for wide interpretation, and so the judgement and expertise of the teacher continue to be required throughout the decision-making process.

When to silence

Step 1 asks whether the content of the speech relates to the lesson topic, allowing for silencing in cases of off-topic speech such as Easy Case. Off-topic speech cannot easily be seen as a well-intended contribution aimed at furthering insight into the subject being discussed. So, being off-topic is a good indication that this speech will not pass through the next step.

Step 2 asks about the intention of the speech. Is the speech genuinely intended to be a contribution to the debate? Does the student really believe the view to be plausible? Working this out will depend on factors such as tone of voice and body language. However, we can also look at the words themselves and ask whether there is a general, academic claim explicit in, or lying behind, the speech. Academic claims tend to make general statements rather than being aimed at specific members of the class.

The comment in Amended Easy Case does relate to the lesson topic, but it is not intended to advance discussion on the legitimacy of affirmative action. Rather, the student is making an ad hominem swipe with the intention of putting a fellow student down. The comment should therefore be silenced.

Whether a viewpoint is patently unreasonable or not may factor in your assessment of how to answer Step 2, for a view being utterly unreasonable should increase your scepticism about whether this is a genuine contribution to debate. However, the reasonableness of the viewpoint does not feature in the flowchart as an independent step in deciding whether to silence. This is because if a student does genuinely believe the view, then it needs addressing through discussion.

On rare occasions, speech that it would normally be appropriate to discuss must be silenced, due to the heightened sensitivity of one or more students. This is the case in Suicide, which gets an affirmative answer to Step 3. Simmy’s comment raises an interesting point, which is relevant to the topic and intended as a serious claim. However, in the current context, it is deeply insensitive to discuss it further, and so the right response is silencing. Unlike in the previous two cases, the silencing is not a rebuke. Rather, there is a quiet dismissal of the sub-topic and a re-direction to other aspects of the less sensitive, wider topic.

Although both cases involve potential harm to fellow students, Suicide is unlike Amended Hard Case (and other cases that should be discussed) because the sensitivity arises as a result of the specific timing of the speech. Discussion of Simmy’s point can be delayed for another time when it will be less sensitive. In contrast, discussing affirmative action in a mixed-race classroom will always be sensitive, and yet it remains important for it to be discussed.

How to discuss

The remaining examples should be discussed, not silenced. But there are different ways to discuss a topic. How the teacher approaches a discussion should be affected by the extent to which the speech raises an open question. Here an open question is defined as one where there is both reasonable disagreement – where there are arguments on both sides that have a chance of convincing a rational person – and where there is significant disagreement in society over this issue.

In Amended Hard Case the teacher can allow open discussion. The question of whether affirmative action benefits the disadvantaged is one where plausible arguments can be provided on both sides. There also exists a good deal of disagreement in society over affirmative action.

The view voiced in Nativity Play has significant public support, but despite this, should not be seen as raising an open question. The Muslim children who Laura is referring to are (officially) home, and so the view expressed cannot be reasonably supported. The teacher should therefore be ready to engineer the discussion towards cultivating a more sympathetic approach to British Muslims who have already made their home in the UK. The teacher may not need to intervene in order to achieve this aim, because Laura’s view may be adequately addressed by the responses of other students. (This is in fact what happened in my classroom. The responses included a Muslim student objecting that ‘I am home.’)

Much speech will be hard to place in the continuum between open and closed questions, and it is expected that people will disagree over where certain issues should be placed. Gay marriage has been shown to be one example that provokes particular disagreement amongst teachers (Hess and McAvoy 2015, 159). Teachers must therefore engage in continual critical reflection, as well as deliberation with colleagues, on how to approach these difficult issues.


Arneback, E. 2014. “Moral imagination in education: A Deweyan proposal for teachers responding to hate speech.” Journal of Moral Education 43 (3): 269–281.

Callan, E. 2011. “When to shut students up: Civility, silencing, and free speech.” Theory and Research in Education 9 (1): 3–22.

Hess, D. E., and P. McAvoy. 2015. The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education. New York: Routledge.