Cancel culture points to big question: Are students learning about freedom of speech?

February 19, 2021

This is part 12 in Sutherland’s new series that seeks to examine how Utah education standards prepare students to be active citizens. In this part, we analyze current social studies standards for grades 7-12. In this review we are looking at all the social studies courses in grades 7-12, except for the required one-semester “civics course” titled United States Government and Citizenship, which we analyzed separately.

As U.S. senators and Star Wars and Avengers actors have found out, the cultural phenomenon called “cancel culture” continues to insert itself into many parts of society. Cancel culture seeks to “cancel” or remove certain people from mainstream discourse. Typically, this is done by shaming them into apologies and silence, and sometimes out of a particular position. This is, of course, usually accomplished by individuals or private businesses – not the government. Still, this attitude found in American culture can certainly impact how we view and create free speech law and policy going forward.

Much is being said right now about free speech – both the legal side of it and the cultural side.

While the Utah State Board of Education is currently in the standards revision process for the Utah State Social Studies standards only for elementary school grades (kindergarten through sixth grade), we think it is helpful to review our state approach to civics education at all levels of education. Sutherland Institute is seeking to understand how well Utah’s current social studies standards help students fulfill their duties in civil society and government.

For this first review, we are specifically looking at freedom of speech in all of the grade 7-12 social studies courses – except for the U.S. Government and Citizenship course (the civics course) – which was analyzed separately. The remaining social studies courses include: Utah Studies, United States History 1, World Geography, World History, and United States History 2.

As with other parts of this series, in order to assess how well the current social studies standards assist students in fulfilling their rights and responsibilities with regard to freedom of speech, we have decided to look for two main factors: how well the standards (1) incorporate primary source founding documents and (2) teach skills for civic discourse.

Social Studies Courses in grades 7-12 except for the United States Government and Citizenship course

Incorporate primary source documents

Among all the remaining social studies courses, only two standards prompt students to look at primary source documents in order to directly learn about free speech. For example, one standard says that “students will identify the civic virtues and principles codified by the Utah Constitution.” Many sections in the Utah constitution are similar to what is found in the U.S. Constitution, and this is certainly the case for freedom of speech. Prompting students to directly access the Utah State Constitution would also likely cause them to read/learn about the freedom of speech clauses at the state level.

Likewise, one standard asks students to explain “how the ideas, events, and compromises” which led to the creation of the U.S. Constitution are reflected in the document. Directly studying the document may lead to a discussion about freedom of speech.

(It’s worth noting that there are multiple standards that ask students to draw upon primary sources, but most of these are not dealing with free speech, which is the specific analysis of this category.)

Skills for civic discourse

When it comes to developing skills for freedom of speech, the standards do not prompt much in this area. Scattered throughout, standards may ask students to explain concepts or create an argument. Undoubtedly these can help students practice communicating their ideas in class; however, such prompts are usually a generic teaching tool rather than for learning about free speech or practicing debate for civic discourse.


In general, the standards for Utah’s grade 7-12 social studies courses incorporate a very modest number of standards that reference primary source founding documents that would teach about free speech or similarly require civic discourse skills in a more generic way. The standards for the social studies courses in grades 7-12, minus the civics courses, could increase their references to the foundational principles of free speech.

(Note: What’s a “standard”? It is a broad statement of what students are expected to understand and/or know how to do within a certain discipline.

What’s an “objective”? An objective is a more focused description of what students need to know and/or be able to do within a given standard.

What’s an “indicator”? These are measurable and observable student actions that enable teachers to judge whether a student has mastered a particular objective.)

Jump to different parts of this series:

Utah Core Standards, Objectives and Indicators referenced:

Source: Utah Core Standards, Utah State Board of Education

UT Standard 3.1 Students will identify the civic virtues and principles codified by the Utah Constitution.

U.S. 1 Standard 4.1 Students will explain how the ideas, events, and compromises which led to the development and ratification of the Constitution are reflected in the document itself.

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