Investigation 4 Issue 2: Can they say that?: The limits of free speech

In September 2005, a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, printed 12 cartoons which contained caricatured impressions of the Prophet Muhammed, the founder of Islam and its most revered figure. The cartoons divided world opinion, inciting violent demonstrations by Muslims in countries around the world, and raised questions about whether the right to free speech in democracies protected expression that offended members of religious or cultural communities.


The following articles describe the controversy and the reactions over the publication of the cartoons. Divide the article among your group, and respond to the questions/instructions, in your group, below.

Cartoon controversy spreads throughout Muslim world (Guardian Unlimited)

Muslim cartoon row timeline (BBC)

Cartoons of Prophet Met With Outrage (The Washington Post)

Muslim anger at Danish Cartoons (BBC News)

Respect each other to avoid a clash of civilisations (Gulf News)

Why I published those cartoons (Gulf News)

  • Devise a Flow Chart of events that led to the controversy and the reaction.
  • Using a Cause and Effect Chart, show the relationship between what you think were the causes of the controversy and its effects.
  • Use a T-Chart to depict the arguments for and against the publication of the cartoons.

Using the information in your charts and the articles, respond to the following.

  • List the reasons provided by the Danish newspaper for the publication of the cartoons, and explain why you find them convincing or unconvincing.
  • List and explain why the cartoons were deemed to be offensive.
  • What avenues for protesting against the publication of the cartoons were explored, and how effective were they?
  • Using your charts, nominate the points at which the controversy might have been defused, and explain what could have been done.


Read the briefing paper on the issue developed by Human Rights Watch, and complete the following chart, which asks you to identify and summarise its key points by cross-referencing the issues with its main arguments.

Questions and Answers on the Danish Cartoons and Freedom of Expression (Human Rights Watch)

For example, when weighing up the Muhammed cartoons in relation to free speech, the briefing paper stated that …


Holocaust denial

Muhammed cartoons

Religious freedom

Individual responsibility

Government responsibility

Media’s responsibility

Free Speech


·         Offensive speech should be openly debated, not banned


Hate Speech


Reporting and presenting your findings

Read the following article and compare its arguments to the view you’ve developed in the light of your research. Using the findings from your research and your view of the article, organise a class debate or ‘hypothetical’ around the question: Should all speech be given the same value and protection?

There is free speech, and then there is hate-inducing vilification (Online Opinion)

Extension activity

Developing media policy

During your investigation, you will have explored at least one perspective on the media and its place within democratic societies such as Australia. Working with students who have investigated the other perspectives, devise a media policy, which uses your research, for implementation in Australia. Your policy may take the form of a set of principles, or a statement.


Introduction | Introductory activity | The Investigations | Investigation 1 | Investigation 2 | Investigation 3 | Investigation 4 | Investigation 4 Issue 1 | Investigation 4 Issue 2