Free Speech: The Power to Disturb

Copyrighted by Lorna Tedder. Originally published in Third Degree and Rising.

The power to “disturb” is a mighty and wonderful thing, because if you have the power to disturb, you have the power to persuade, to draw out certain emotions, to affect change. That’s also why some people are so terrified of it.


I’m not pro or anti-gun, which is often the bent of political opinions expressed over the Virginia Tech murders. I’m a writer, and for me, the political hot button is free speech and the chilling effect this tragedy has had on so many of my fellow writers who now fear to speak their hearts and minds without being branded a potential criminal.

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, the English major murderer, and his “disturbing writings” that were far beneath the quality of any English major I’ve ever known, how does our nation of “free speech” advocates react? By arresting the next person to write something a teacher qualifies as “disturbing,” whether or not there’s evidence of any physical behavior or patterns of dangerous intentions.

According to reports, this time it was Allen Lee, an “excellent student” doing his homework in the way he interpreted the instructions and not directing any violent thought at anyone or at any place. He was to express emotion in his creative writing? Sounds like he should have gotten an A instead of an arrest record.

This news story hits home with me on so many levels, but mostly as a writer and as mom to a budding writer. Not to mention, I was an “excellent student” in high school and an English major in college. I fear the Thought Police are upon us.

If I were 30 years younger, I suppose I’d have an arrest record by now for some of the things I wrote as a high school student, or maybe even as a middle school student. I recall a particular English and creative writing teacher giving me a C on a paper—an A+ for the writing and an F for the subject matter, even though she’d told us to write about a controversial topic. Apparently by “controversial,” she meant the differences between city and country living.

“Lorna,” she said, “at 16, you’re a better writer than I can ever hope to be, but your content is getting you into trouble because you’re writing about living together without being married and the Bible says that’s just wrong.” She was instructed by the principal to have a counseling session with me about my sinful ways. Pretty damned funny considering I was about the oldest virgin in high school.

As a writer whose suspense novels always have a fairly high body count, I managed to keep that side of my creative process away from my children, yet when Aislinn was eight years old— eight!!!!—she was identified by a teacher for “disturbing writings.”

She had a reading level that was many grades higher than her age and couldn’t find the kind of books she wanted to read in her elementary school library, so she wrote long tales about Medieval princesses using magic, swords, and their own wits to save their kingdoms from the evil villains. She had the most incredible writing voice for a child—or any writer actually—at that age, and her voice fit so well into the Young Adult Historical genre. In spite of it, she stopped writing after an incident in the third grade.

She’d shared her stories with me, and I’d been amazed at how lyrical they were. I used to judge writing contests that rarely yielded such a distinct voice. Yes, the kind of writing that a writer-mommy is obviously proud of. She shared these stories with her English teacher, too, who always encouraged her. Everybody thought these stories were amazing except for one person.

She shared her stories with her homeroom teacher, who never gave Aislinn any feedback. Of course, Aislinn tried harder, thinking she could please this teacher. One day the homeroom teacher read an “Aislinn story” and sent the story and a note by Aislinn to the English teacher. Aislinn  wasn’t to look at the note, written in cursive, but she did and reported its contents back to me. She didn’t understand what she’d read, but I did.

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Her homeroom teacher was “disturbed” by Aislinn’s writings and wanted the English’s teacher’s support. She thought Aislinn needed counseling or showed evidence of, perhaps, doing something dastardly toward her family. Why? Because the princess-heroines in all of Aislinn’s stories were alone in the world, her parents having died tragically, and it was up to her to save the kingdom from being overtaken by her parents’ enemies!

I guess the teacher had never seen Bambi or any Disney movie out at that time. At that point in Aislinn’s life, the only Disney movie where the mom was alive was The Lion King (and the Daddy gets killed and the kingdom usurped). My point is, Aislinn used a classic plot device—force the young protagonists to stand on their own by taking away their parents either through killing them off, taking them far away, or turning them into bumbling and ineffective idiots. Did no one take note of how the protagonists in Disney movies are forced to stand on their own because they can’t rely on their missing or bumbling parents any longer? It’s a safe exercise in learning independence, not a plan to off every adult around you. And Aislinn had handled it in her stories with a mere mention of the princess being sad since that terrible fire had swept the castle and mysteriously killed her beloved parents.

At the time, it reminded me of when I was 9 years old and my mom found a short story I’d written about a girl forced into hiding while she tries to uncover a mystery. My mom, not being a writer, was greatly disturbed that I was writing my own intentions and made me promise never to run away or talk about anything that might terrify her so.

I stopped writing for a few months, but even in the fourth grade, I couldn’t stop. So I learned to hide it from her and from anyone who might betray that I wrote my stories in secret.

Are we heading in that direction now as backlash to the Virginia Tech murders? That writers who can relate powerful images and evoke emotion must stay silent? Are the thought police truly coming for us now, even while we claim to have free speech? This is not the same as crying “Fire!” in a crowded room or picking up a sword to do the job our pens write about.

But you want disturbing writings? Here’s a truly disturbing thought: let’s just go ahead and lobotomize all the kids when they get their childhood vaccines and then we won’t have to worry about any of those “dangerous” thoughts popping up.


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