Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
writer editor born-again horse girl

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Free Speech

June 16, 2009

I'm only managing to write an hour or two a day, but things are happening. Fermenting, dare I say. The death of my sourdough starter at the end of March does seem to have been the proverbial inspirational gift from the muses -- yesterday I e-mailed off the second of three pieces spawned by my sprawling eulogy to my dead starter ("Pavane for a Starter Defunte"?). The first and simplest was submitted to Edible Vineyard. It was partly about my starter but mostly about how to get a starter going and what to do with it when you do. The second, and just completed, went to Trivia, whose call for submissions for an issue on "Are Lesbians Going Extinct?" arrived at exactly the right time. I was afraid that the death of my sourdough starter might have cosmic significance, and the e-mail from Trivia told me I was right, don't be afraid, get on with it.

The third, as yet unwritten, part of the triptych has the working title "Why the U.S. Needs an Independent Feminist Movement." As I read through my submission for Trivia (which has no title at all, working or otherwise), I could see #3 trying to burst, ooze, and sneak through between the lines. It may not mention sourdough at all, but you'll know it's there.

Meanwhile, my "tolerance" piece appeared as an op-ed in the June 5 Vineyard Gazette, and I'm working on two more op-ed type pieces. One is my advice to President Obama and his family, who, it is rumored, will be vacationing on Martha's Vineyard at the end of August. The other is a July 4 tie-in about free speech, which has been much on my mind lately, as you can tell from the "Bilious" blog that followed the one about the murder of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita. Conditions that encourage speech (and thinking, rabble-rousing, and other good stuff) and conditions that inhibit it (et al.) probably underlie just about everything I write.

Censorship and the First Amendment are wondrously misunderstood. Maybe that's what I'll write about.

If you tell me to shut up, that's not censorship. And you're certainly not violating the First Amendment, which says that Congress shall pass no law abridging the freedom of speech. If you're Congress and you pass a law to make me shut up, then you're violating the First Amendment.

However, say you're my employer and you tell me to take that pro-choice bumper sticker off my car. Say you tell me to take that pro-choice bumper sticker off my car if I want to continue to work for your company. No laws have been passed, but how free am I to not remove the pro-choice bumper sticker from my car? It depends. How much do I need this job? Do I have a trust fund or a partner who earns a steady and decent income? How fast could I get another job? Maybe you're bluffing and you wouldn't actually fire me. If you did fire me, theoretically I might be able to sue, but if I lacked money to hire a lawyer and had no union local at my back, my practical options are not many.

Say you're holding a gun and you tell me to shut up.

Say you're a big honcho in the organization and I'm just a little peon.

Say no one has to tell me to shut up because I know that if I open my mouth, it's going to affect my kid at school and my mother on her job.

No one's being censored, but someone's being shut up.

The government that has to pass laws to shut people up has probably lost the battle. A clever government knows how to shut people up without passing any laws.

So how does a society encourage people to speak? Does any society really want to do this? Does ours?


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