Free Speech & Ethics

Essentials | Key Dates | How to Contact Professor Klein  | Prerequisites | Purpose | Success

Text | Supplies | References | Assignments | Grades | Grading

Academic Ethics | Classroom Behavior | Chapter Outlines | Schedule

This class meets in Room 206 of Innovation Hall


This class meets on Monday and Wednesdays over a total of 15 weeks and 28 sessions beginning Monday Aug. 25 and concluding Wednesday Dec. 3 (with the exception of Labor Day Sept. 1 and Oct. 6) from noon to 1:15 p.m. in 116 Thompson Hall. There will be midterm and final exams.

This syllabus represents an agreement (or contract) between the student and the instructor. By remaining enrolled in this course, each student is accepting the policies and guidelines covered in this syllabus.


IMPORTANT NOTE: Students who do not confirm their registration by attendance at the first class meeting are subject to being dropped at the discretion of the department and instructor. Students must not assume that the department will automatically initiate a drop for not attending class. Students who register for courses they do not attend are themselves responsible for dropping the class.


    GMU office: Thompson Hall, room 219-B
    Office phone: 703-993-2199
    GMU e-mail:
    Personal e-mail:
    Web page:
    Office hours: 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday or by appointment
    To leave work: Use my mailbox in the COMM office, 212 Thompson



This three-credit course deals with major issues surrounding the role of free speech, press and electronic media in society. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is a twin edged sword: It allows individuals a great deal of freedom to speak and it allows media the right to publish somewhat freely. With those rights come responsibilities -- a need for ethics -- not present in many other systems. Areas of study include the history of free speech/press issues in society, the place of government in regulating the marketplace of ideas, and the responsibility of the individual in a free society. In this class, we will wrestle with the contradictions between the Bill of Rights and less clearly articulated rights of privacy, safety and equal opportunity. We will examine how these rights affect communication.
By the semester's end, each class member is expected to articulate for herself/himself a code of responsibility as a guide for his/her communication, both as a receiver and a source of messages.

Course Objectives / Students will be able to:
1. Summarize the historical development of free speech and press in the United States.
2. Identify the strains and potential conflicts between "rights" of speech and press as developed in U.S. law and the less well articulated, but equally basic, rights to have personal freedom of religion, equal opportunities and privacy.
3. Articulate a personal code of communication ethics to guide the personal and professional communication decisions they will make in functioning as members of a free society.

Planned Approach:
We will not attempt to cover every possible issue. We will deal with three areas by looking at cases: media, political (in the broad sense of governing) and corporate communication.
We will examine standards of responsibility pertaining to both sending and receiving in each area.
Included in each of these areas will be issues relating to print and electronic media distribution and consumption.
Always, we will foreground this question: How does the responsible individual communicate in these kinds of situations?


Attending the class on a regular basis is a good way to start. In-class work that is missed cannot be made up unless excused in advance.
You must read and observe how news is reported, written and presented on a daily basis throughout the semester. You can do this by reading a daily newspaper (like the New York Times, Washington Post or USA TODAY, all easily available locally), watching television news and monitoring websites (like your own local newspaper website) on the Internet. Students are encouraged to share examples of relevant issues and how they are covered in the media in class.

REQUIRED TEXT (please bring to every class) AND OTHER READINGS:

SUPPLIES (please bring the following to EVERY class session): SUGGESTED REFERENCES (some useful websites):


from the textbook will be assigned (see below). Student groups will be responsible for outlining a chapter from the text, leading the class in discussion of that chapter, and providing the outline on disk to be posted on this GMU COMM 454 website (this is a graded assignment).

You are responsible for:

Evaluation of work:
All assignments are given a point total; some assignments may be assessed on an acceptable/not acceptable/no credit basis; others will be "graded" in the sense that they earn a range of points from 0 to maximum, based on the quality of the work. In the latter case, a mid-range score is awarded for satisfactory work; B recognizes good work; and A denotes truly superior work.
Clear and correct writing will be expected in all writing assignments. Clarity and good organization will contribute to (or detract from) the total score on a quality rating basis; I will also deduct one point for each error of spelling (or typing), punctuation, grammar, etc. Corrections may be inserted by hand, but ANY uncorrected error deletes one point. Assignments must be turned in (or presented) on the day assigned or be subject to late penalties.

Time and effort:
Remember that if you are taking 15 credit hours, your college work is a full-time job (at least as we define full-time in the U.S.). You should expect to spend 2-3 hours out of class for every hour you spend in class. That adds up to 45-60 hours -- not including your commute! I want you to be realistic about the demands on your time and what you should expect to be able to achieve in class.

Extra credit:
Listening to and reporting on speeches given ON CAMPUS. This work will be assessed and graded for possible extra credit ONLY with prior approval by the instructor. I will inform you of appropriate speeches I learn about; you may suggest speeches. A good source for this information is Today@Mason.
If approved, such speech reports may be submitted in substitution for some other work missed or done unsatisfactorily. You can attend two such events.

Emphasis on thinking critically:
If you expect lots of lectures, this may be the wrong class for you.
This class will be built around YOUR reading, thinking, questioning, exploring and participation. I expect to learn from each of you.
You must be present in class to participate, but participation is more -- much more -- than just being in your seat for class. Participation means reading the materials, ON TIME, and discussing the materials in class so that your classmates and I can benefit from YOUR thinking and you from theirs.

ALL assignments must be typed and double spaced with standard margins.
Rather than a cover sheet, type the following (single spaced) in the upper lefthand corner of each assignment:

Details of class assignments and evaluation criteria:

Class participation refers not merely to the amount that you talk, but to the quality and civility of your contributions during discussions. I will look for your ability to synthesize free speech "law" and philosophy and assess the interactive effects of law, philosophy, political and social structure on day-to-day speech, writing and ethical choices that people make. This is necessarily a subjective evaluation. Highest points go to students who attend class regularly and contribute consistently (if there is some reason that you cannot actively participate when in class, please talk to me about it during office hours).


ALL written work should reflect college-level writing. Any typing errors in papers are YOUR writing errors. Therefore, PROOFREAD carefully; have someone else proofread your work as well. Very few of us can do quality first-draft work. Leave yourself enough time to revise and rewrite your work. Believe me when I tell you that I can tell first-draft quality work! Corrections may be inserted by hand (if necessary), but uncorrected typos are errors that will be penalized. Handwritten papers are NOT acceptable.
Appropriate source citations are expected. Citations should follow appropriate research paper format; either APA or MLA style for in-text citation and reference lists is acceptable. Choose either, but be consistent; don't mix and match.
NOTE: It is NOT smart to turn in any paper without having a copy of it; and if your copy is on disk, BE SURE TO BACK UP YOUR DISKS.
Do not discard ANY returned assignments until end of the semester. You may need them to verify that you did an assignment.


Exams will cover the "factual" material in the course. Each will be one or two questions that will ask you to demonstrate an understanding of the historical "facts" and to develop a reasonable argument of interpretation for those "facts" related to free speech/press history, ethics and "law."

Project paper and oral presentation:

The project paper and presentation relate to each other. You will choose an issue area and investigate a specific event that relates to free speech and ethics. You should:
1. Conduct a review of literature to find what has been written about the event or on the issue.
2. Describe what occurred and set it in historical, social, economic and political context.
3. Present your analysis of the ethics and the responsibility or irresponsibility of the communicators involved. This section requires that you indicate what your own personal code of communication ethics is.
4. Attempt, to the best of your ability, to determine how, if at all, ethical considerations affected the sources/receivers in the situation, even to the extent of inferring from absence of overt references by participants.
5. Try to decide what YOU would have done in that situation.
The specific event and research question/hypothesis to be examined must be chosen and approved by me no later than the end of the 4th week of classes.

Oral presentation and paper:

The oral presentation (you will also provide class members with a brief abstract) will be a distillation of your paper presented to the entire class -- a sort of executive summary. Time devoted to the presentation will depend on class size. At the most, you will have a maximum of 15 minutes, after which you will lead the class in a discussion of the issues involved. In this discussion, you will seek to focus listeners' thinking on the important issues posed by the case. At the conclusion of your presentation, you should use 3-4 minutes to draw relevant conclusions based on your presentation and listeners' comments. These oral presentations can occur at various times throughout the semester; other faculty can be/may be invited to participate in the evaluations.
The oral report will be evaluated for quality of oral communication as well as for quality of content. Evaluation criteria will include clarity, organization, accuracy of information, completeness, and quality of insight and analysis. The report should be organized to permit time for discussion following the presentation.
The paper will be evaluated for thoroughness of reporting about the case and the communication surrounding it as well as thoroughness of coverage of the points outlined in the assignment; for quality of writing; and for insightfulness in identifying and courage in confronting the ethical issues involved.
First draft of the paper will be due the 9th week of the semester, with a rewrite opportunity to follow.


The final grade for this course will be based on the quality of your work, which includes:


GMU utilizes a 10-point +/- grading scale.The Department of Communication has adopted the following scale for core and basic courses, which will be used to assign final grades in COMM454:


Honesty is a given for those who engage in journalism. When you violate the trust of your audience, you lose your important commodity: your credibility.
George Mason University's "Honor System and Code" is outlined on pages 29-31 of the 2003-04 University Catalog as part of the "Academic Policies" section (pages 27-45).
With regard to this course, acts of dishonesty include, but are not necessarily limited to, cheating on examinations, plagiarizing material from other sources, making up material or sources of information, and/or submitting work for this course originally completed for other courses without instructors permission. The penalty for academic dishonesty is failure of the course -- and you will be reported to the Honor Committee.
Plagiarism means using the exact words, opinions or factual information from another person without giving that person credit. Plagiarism is the equivalent of intellectual robbery and cannot be tolerated in an academic or journalistic setting.


In all discussions and assignments, this course emphasizes the importance of avoiding identifications and descriptions that serve to perpetuate stereotypes about gender, age, dialect, disability, national origin, race, religious affiliation and sexual preference. It is expected that discussions will be open and honest, but abusive language or behavior will not be tolerated.
Because of the sensitive nature of the computers, no food or drink will be allowed in the classroom, nor will smoking be tolerated.

Common courtesy should always prevail.

Your regular attendance in this class will have a gret impact on your final grade. The in-class participation is critical (in other words, you want me to know your name as early in the semester as possible!).
The only acceptable excuse for missing class is illness, serious family emergency, or a major religious holiday (see below).
For an excused absence, you must bring a note from a doctor (or medical professional) or parent (in the case of a family emergency).
Any application for an excused absence must be submitted in writing with a copy for my records.
Although you will not be graded directly for attendance (which I will keep), missing class without an approved written excuse will mean a failing grade for any in-class work and participation for that class.
If the number of missed classes add up, you will discover that you are failing that portion of the class. Equally important, it will strongly affect your final grade in other ways: missing important information that impacts your ability to successfully complete assignments.
Classes will start on time; it is rude to your fellow students to be late and cost them classtime.
Be aware of traffic and parking patterns in and around campus, especially the first two weeks of the semester.

Note to student athletes participating in intercollegiate events: You MUST inform me in writing prior to missing a class. So check your schedules now; if you must miss more than one or two classes because of scheduled events, you should reconsider taking this class.

It is the policy of George Mason University and this instructor to make every reasonable effort to allow members of our diverse university community to observe their religious holidays without academic penalty. However, it your responsibility to provide me with advance written notice of the dates of any major religious holidays on which you will be absent (the earlier notice the better please).

I have regular/posted office hours (immediately after class at 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday) and encourage you to use them -- as well as making mutually convenient special appointments as necessary. Students who proactively visit with their professors before a situation becomes a problem tend to avoid problems and do better in class.

Conversations about grades or individual problems are best dealt with in my office, or if necessary by e-mail.

This university and this instructor are committed to providing an equitable learning environment for every student. I will readily adjust those students with special needs. If you have special needs in the classroom, please provide a letter from Disability Support Services confirming and describing your special needs at the start of the semester. You may have Disability Support Services contact me directly. This information will be kept in confidence.



NOTE: This schedule is subject to minor changes based on class progress throughout the semester. Changes will be communicated by e-mail and in class. Reading assignments are to be completed BEFORE class on the week listed. REMEMBER: FS refers to the Tedford & Herbeck book.

WEEK 1 (Aug. 25 & 27)

WEEK 2 (NO CLASS SEPT. 1 ... Sept. 3)

WEEK 3 (Sept. 8 & 10)

WEEK 4 (Sept. 15 & 17)

WEEK 5 (Sept. 22 & 24)

WEEK 6 (Sept. 29 & Oct. 1)

WEEK 7 (NO CLASS OCT. 6 ... Oct. 8)

WEEK 8 (Oct. 14 & 15)

WEEK 9 (Oct. 20 & 22)

WEEK 10 (Oct. 27 & 29)

WEEK 11 (Nov. 3 & 5)

WEEK 12 (Nov. 10 & 12)

WEEK 13 (Nov. 17 & 19)

WEEK 14 (Nov. 24 & 26)

WEEK 15 (Dec. 1 & 3)