The Meaning of Independence Day

by Andy Oram
June 29, 2001

The Contest

“Here’s a job you’ll enjoy, Hedy,” chimed out Mr. Castelli, holding a sheaf of papers to his chest and raising one above his head so he looked like a Statue of Liberty with a middle-aged paunch. The student to which he directed his comment, Hedy, was the favorite of several teachers. Among her fellow students she did not rise into the popular set, but kids enjoyed how she enlivened a conversation and returned a verbal jibe with style. The two features that conspired to deny her conventional good looks—her prominent, flaring eyes and her broad jaw—seemed to thrust out aggressively each time one of her remarks hit her target.

Mr. Castelli was now reading in a drone from the sheet. “The Meaning of Independence Day. Winning essay to be published in the local newspaper and school Web site. It will also be read at a July 4 celebration in Union Park.” He crossed the width of the classroom, flinging sheets to each of the students in the front row by swiveling his arm in large motions perpendicular to his torso. “Those are the instructions, class. You can cover any aspect of July 4. Think about what made us a new country; what distinguished the United States from the former English colonies. Be creative!” He winked at Hedy, as if to say—this is one you can win, kid.

The students ribbed each other about the essay later in the mall. Mannie suggested “A Land Where Anyone Can Become Rich: An America of Game Shows,” while Ling thought up “Amber Waves of Genetically Modified Grain.” But Hedy didn’t even think about the essay until they were settled down later behind a warehouse and passed out some little white pills that made them drowsy and bleary-eyed.

“Why does this stuff make you see funny?” asked Sippy.

“Look it up on the Internet, there’s a site that’ll tell you all about it,” answered Joan.

“Not in our trash-heap of a school library,” sniped Ling.

“Why not?”

“’Cause they’ve got some kind of filters on the computer, it blocks out anything serious. We’re all reading at a fourth-grade level on that system,” explained Ling.

And in front of Hedy’s floating senses crystalized an idea she could barely articulate. “The contest!” she cried.

“What about it?”

“That’ll be my essay,” she said. “First Amendment. Why you should be allowed to see anything you want on the Internet.” She gave her head a shake, disturbing her short black hair.

“What’s that got to do with Independence Day?”

“Well, what did we fight for, anyway? I know the First Amendment’s in the Constitution and that came later than Independence Day, but it’s all supposed to be connected, I can’t explain…”

Much was to pass, but eventually she could explain.

The Chat

As a senior, Hedy could have coasted through the last months of high school. Instead, she threw herself into her Internet essay. She always wanted her assignments to be the best in the class, but somehow this project gradually took on, for her, a significance greater than any teacher had expected it to have, or that the rewards of the contest would suggest.

For six days she held a series of chats to gather background. She told everyone she knew to tell everyone they knew, and participants jumped in from all over the world.

Legality of filters

On the first day, Hedy started close to home. She asked her chatters about the filters on her school’s computers.

headie:

So if the First Amendment protects free speech, why is blocking it legal?

studly:

Clever motion came out of Justice Dept just recently. Says they’re not blocking anything, no First Amendment issues. New law just requires that filters be installed. Govt can force this because they’re providing money (e-rate). Govt doesn’t say what you’re supposed to block. You don’t have to block anything. In theory. Fact is, most filters block huge amounts of material protected under the First Amendment—I call it prior restraint. Let me find a quote for you, got a good one somewhere…

headie:

Explain that phrase, please—prior restraint.

Kee-Grip:

Just means that material is censored before publication. Traditionally means you have to submit material to a censor before you go to print or release a movie etc. Most restrictive form of censorship, real bad news.

studly:

Got that quote. Court said “Any system of prior restraints of expression comes to this court bearing a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity.” Joseph Barstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 1952.

headie:

How does prior restraint apply to software filters?

Kee-Grip:

If they’re not prior restraint, what are they? Typing in a domain name and saying anything ever sent from that domain is blocked / typing in a word like “dick” and saying anything with that word is blocked / that censors material before it’s even created!

studly:

Some filters let administrator overrule the filter’s choices. Not good enough. Hang on to this: Freedman v. Maryland, 1965. Justice Brennan wrote for the court: “Because the censor’s business is to censor, there inheres the danger that he may well be less responsive than a court…to the constitutionally protected interests in free expression. And if it is made unduly onerous, by reason of delay or otherwise, to seek judicial review, the censor’s determination may in practice be final.”

headie:

What does that mean?

studly:

Says prior restraint is wrong if reversing the censor’s decision is “onerous,” prohibitively hard to do. Brennan’s talking about a publisher taking a case to court after being censored. But I think there are other forms of “unduly onerous” barriers. Does a student dare to ask a librarian to unblock a site about drugs or STDs? And does the librarian have the time and expertise to do it? With filters in place, like the judge says, “the censor’s determination may in practice be final.”

Community standards, and no standards at all

On the second day, Hedy went beyond the law to look at the social impacts of filters.

headie:

Tell me about these filters—why do you folks hate them so much? Is the wrong stuff being blocked?

Kee-Grip:

oh, there’s no way to argue that one. The filters are awful. Check www.spectacle.org/cs/xstop.html. It’s one of the classic studies, an early one—showed that if you have unusual political opinions, god forbid info to help gays or lesbians cope, you’re likely to be blocked.

carrie:

unusual religions, too—better not believe in more than one god if you want to use the Internet. first amendment issue, anyone?

Kee-Grip:

a lot of conservative groups thought filtering was great—then they found out they were being blocked too. Some reversed their opinions on filtering after that.

carrie:

Another good report is www.peacefire.org/amnesty-intercepted/

Kee-Grip:

lots of stuff at and www.glaad.org too, focused on gay/les/bi/etc. Makes you think twice about keeping kids “safe.” What’s more important, hiding material on the Internet or helping them cope with attacks and ostracism in real life?

headie:

That Justice Department motion you talked about yesterday said they were just allowing institutions to apply community standards.

studly:

well first of all, they’re taking that “community standards” language out of context. Community standards appeared in Miller v. California, 1973. Material must be “patently offensive” and “appeal to prurient interests” according to “community standards.” Most of the content being blocked now is not “patently offensive” and does not “appeal to prurient interests.” Justice dept is using the same sleight of hand as when they said “We’re not making anybody block anything.”

Kee-Grip:

more significant issue: why community standards? Makes some sense when people got to walk by porn magazines on a newsstand or there’s a girlie joint attracting scary outsiders to a neighborhood. But the great thing about the Internet is that some guy can download anything he wants and his neighbor never has to know. No reason to apply community standards.

carrie:

And those communities with the narrowest standards—those are the ones where Internet access matters most! Think of a kid who’s just started wondering if he’s gay. Confused, shook-up, maybe suicidal. In NYC or Frisco he can walk down the street and find a dozen places to help him. It’s some village out in the woods where he needs the Internet—nobody else will talk to him, most of his REAL community is just as scared as he. Last place in the world to apply community standards. Even parental standards.

Kee-Grip:

Internet has its own communities. Communities of individuals scattered around the world. Those are the communities who should set their own standards, if anybody does.

Limits to the First Amendment

On the third day, Hedy explored the kinds of restrictions that the government put on speech.

headie:

If the First Amendment prohibits the abridgement of free speech, why can the government put on any restrictions at all?

Gunner:

you’v got the Absolutist position.

fretter:

that’s legitimate, a lot of people take that view. just not the legislatures.

Gunner:

Or the courts. A “compelling governmental interest” can override free speech.

headie:

What sorts of restrictions are compelling governmental interests?

fretter:

Oh lots and lots of restrictions.

headie:

obscenity?

fretter:

sure.

BackUs:

libel, direct and immediate threats, fighting words—“those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” (Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 1942)

Gunner:

copyrights and trademarks

BackUs:

material critical to national security

fretter:

speech contributing to criminal activity

Gunner:

all those categories have oodles of case law behind them.

headie:

and in the schools?

Gunner:

yeah, there too, most of the categories. maybe not national security.

BackUs:

yeah even that, if you count the cases about distributing encryption programs.

headie:

If courts really follow Miller v. California, content is protected unless it lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific social value.

Gunner:

but thanks to Miller, it’s up to the defendant to prove it has value. The prosecutor proves it’s appealing to prurient interests. Then the defendant is on the hook. Readable discussion in Nat Hentoff’s book, The First Freedom.

BackUs:

did yu know one of the earlier champions of political free speech was prosecuted under obscenity laws?

headie:

who’s that?

BackUs:

John Wilkes, one of the most popular men in the 1700s in both England and the American colonies. Opposed King George III. Published about corruption and injustice. Wrote a sexually explicit parody in 1764 called “Essay on Women” and figured he’d better flee the country. He was convicted of both sedition and obscenity.

headie:

I see. The political and the sexual have never been distinct.

Other public places

On the fourth day, Hedy looked at Internet use in places besides schools.

headie:

Where else have laws about the Internet and obscenity been tested?

alice:

Libraries. The American Library Association is against filters. Many librarians install them anyway. But where librarians refuse to install filters and the issue has gone to court, the filters have always lost.

headie:

Why are filters different from regular library procurement policies? Librarians don’t have to put every book in the world in their library. They turn down books all the time.

carrie:

Public library staff are empowered to select material. They are not empowered to remove material that people find offensive. The courts have ruled that installing filters is tantamount to removing material.

alice:

and there are similar rules for allowing material in public schools. 1976 Court of Appeals ruling in Manarcini v. Strongsville City School District, 1974 said it’s unconstitutional for school board to censor books based on the “social or political tastes” of board members.

Gunner:

Got another quote for you. Shelton v. Tucker, 1960, Justice Stewart writing for the court: “The vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.”

alice:

This one’s even more famous: “Children do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door.” Supreme Court opinion, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, 1969).

Other victims

On the fifth day, Hedy asked whether looking at illegal content was a victimless crime.

headie:

Suppose I’m an adult. Is there a reason that others might care about what I see?

Styla:

Lots of countries outlaw distribution of racist content, display of the swastika, etc. Biggest Interent issue in most European countries. They don’t worry much about skin flicks, but they’ve got plenty of skinheads.

Enjoyn:

their reasoning…a kid pulls down a racist Web page out of curiosity, gets an eyefull of impressive propaganda, this goes on for a few years, then he’s convinced he should smash skulls.

headie:

so what one person sees can hurt other people.

Enjoyn:

well, we’ve heard that argument a lot in the U.S. too when it comes to pornography. Someone views a lot of S&M scenes and it brings out the sadist in him. But there’s been lots of studies—no indication porn makes people behave bad. More evidence for a link when it comes to violent video games and TV.

Styla:

so ask the anti-racist forces this: do you think the young mind is so fragile that it can really be shaped by Web pages? Doesn’t there have to be a deeper cause for all the alarming anti-immigrant violence and the growth of nationalist parties?

Enjoyn:

when a gov says it will crack down on crime and then sends police out to arbitrarily arrest dark-skinned people, that’s a more powerful message than some tract by Robert Faurisson or Ernst Zuendel. Or when major parties call for stricter laws on political asylum to prevent a flood of immigrants.

headie:

On what other legal grounds can one say that material hurts people besides the person viewing it?

Gunner:

harassing environment.

carrie:

library patrons leave up pages of porn that you can’t get rid of without rebooting the system, and some librarians claim it creates a harassing environment.

headie:

So the librarian’s rights are being violated?

alice:

well look at it this way. Who gets more upset: a librarian having to reboot a system that shows porn or Jewish Holocaust victims having Nazis march through their neighborhood? Yet in Village of Skokie v. National Socialist Party of America, 1978, the court said the Nazis had the First Amendment right to parade and display swastikas.

Enjoyn:

The Nuremberg Files case showed that offensive speech is protected online just like everywhere else. Those guys were posting names and addresses of abortion providers and crossing off the names of assassinated ones—but the Ninth Circuit said it wasn’t a direct threat and it was constitutionally protected speech.

headie:

But I do hear lots of things in the schools that get me very upset. Isn’t there a way to draw a line?

carrie:

Lots of schools do. And these cases go to court all the time. A court overruled Stanford University in prohibiting “hatred or contempt” for a race, sex, etc. Another court struck down a University of Michigan code of conduct as unconstitutionally vague; the code prohibited anything that “stigmatizes or victimizes” an individual on the basis of race, sex, etc., or “creates an intimidating, hostile, or demeaning environment.”

alice:

yet many other codes of conduct have stood up in court.

joek:

got to face up to the fact that there’s no standard for what you can say, what’s harassment and not harassment.

headie:

is there any conclusion I can draw?

alice:

just be very nice to everybody.

Legal status

On the sixth day, Hedy tried to find existing legal categories that might fit the Internet.

headie:

Can we compare the Internet to existing institutions in order to find precedents?

Gunner:

When a federal district court decision overturned the Communications Decency Act, they considered lots of precedents, but they recognized the Internet has qualities that make it unique. A ground-breaking statement by Judge Dalzell said, “It is no exaggeration to conclude that the Internet has achieved, and continues to achieve, the most participatory marketplace of mass speech that this country—and indeed the world—has yet seen.”

headie:

So they saw the Internet as so special that they should be extra careful not to do anything to harm it?

Gunner:

I think that was the attitude, yes. But it contains the seeds of its own reversal. Suppose a court decides someday that the Internet isn’t so special anymore? What if the current innovations are squelched by powerful players? And the Internet settles down into “official” or commercial channels?

fretter:

What if the alternatives the court was looking for, like tagging or zoning or adult verification, become more feasible? Already, a French court claimed that yahoo could draw a line around France. handed down a ruling that yahoo had to keep Nazi materials away from French auction bidders.

Enjoyn:

an international treaty being considered right now by The Hague Conference would make each country enforce the restrictions imposed by other countries, so Canadian Internet sites would have to block German residents from seeing material that’s illegal in Germany, etc

Gunner:

Law professor Eugene Volokh says the Supreme Court made a mistake in suggesting that the government could find less restrictive but pretty much equally effective ways of curbing offensive content. they should have said the CDA placed a “substantial burden” on adult speech, and that such a ruling would have left stronger protection in place. See www.law.ucla.edu/faculty/volokh/shield.htm

headie:

Can courts apply rules from other media and areas of life to the Internet?

Gunner:

sure they can. by oversimplifying.

fretter:

procrustean amputation.

Gunner:

like the spanish parliament, which treats the Internet like a commercial marketplace. You’ll have to register with the government before you put up a Web site.

fretter:

or South Australia, which treats the Internet like movie studios. Every site will be subject to prosecution by their film censors.

Gunner:

then there’s the judge who decided a Web site was like physical property. When a competitor wanted to extract auction items from eBay, the judge ruled that it was “trespassing.”

fretter:

and don’t forget the FBI treating the Internet as a telephone, and trying to tap it like one.

BackUs:

Mike Godwin made some interesting comments about Internet service providers in his book Cyber Rights. Says they have a special status, neither publishers nor common carriers, but something in between, more like bookstores. And that was recognized in a very prescient ruling, Cubby v. CompuServe, 1991. But its been misinterpreted and consequently eroded. Litigants have sent the providers scurrying for “safe harbors” like the ones in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

headie:

So the special status of the Internet isn’t going to last. I’d better write about it while it’s fresh.

For the next several weeks, it seemed as if Hedy didn’t sleep. She corresponded with law professors and took buses into the nearby metropolis to visit libraries and seek out rare books in their reference sections. She knew this was the best essay she had ever written. She could almost feel a tingling from its pages as she laid it in the contest box.

The Essay

“The Meaning of Independence Day: The First Amendment and the Internet in a New Century” won unanimous approval from the faculty committee. On their scoresheets, it came out far ahead of either of the next contestants: “The Meaning of Independence Day: A Victory for Checks and Balances” and “The Meaning of Independence Day: Freedom from Unreasonable Taxes.” Hedy waited weeks for publication. The end of school came near, and still it hadn’t appeared in either the town newspaper or the Web site. She approached the newspaper editor, who simply said he was still waiting to receive it. The teacher responsible for Web content was slightly more informative, saying that it needed “administrative approval” before going on the Web.

“What is administrative approval?” asked Hedy contentiously. Used to praise and acknowledgement for her work, she ratcheted up her propulsive aggressiveness in response to neglect. “Why have a Web site if it takes two months to get anything approved?” The teacher then advised her to go straight to the principal.

Mr. Pomeroy was tending to the plants behind his desk. A tall man with eyes as watery as the puddles in the fernpots, he stooped with caution over each green shoot and dribbled into it a miserly stream of greenish fluid. As he glanced round at the intruder in his office, his unexpressive face displayed the faintest look of surprise, but Hedy could not tell whether it was positive or negative.

“Ah, Hedy,” came his modulated voice. “How have your classes been going this year?”

She got straight to her point, challenging him on why her essay had not been published.

“Actually,” he uttered with a slight lilt, as if he had just discovered the real reason himself, “actually, I held it back to shield you, Hedy. I didn’t want you to embarrass yourself in public.”

“The essay won unanimously! What’s embarrassing about it?”

He sat down now, leaning back in his chair, and flipped a ruler back and forth nervously as he tried to convey the seriousness of her gaff to her gently. “A wonderful essay, very well-written, certainly. But how you misunderstood the history of the First Amendment! You oversimplified too many things.”

“I cited lots of writings and cases.”

“All old.” He leaned forward with a frown, as if displaying an artifact of the difficult battle behind his decision. “The essay really wasn’t appropriate, not appropriate at all, and I just couldn’t let it go out.”

“You censored it.” She boiled over with the shallow self-righteousness of a youth long sheltered from the world’s corruption. She had never doubted that she would win the contest, and could not have imagined that her triumph would thus be ripped from her hands.

“Not at all.”

“You might as well call a spade a spade, especially when you have just used it to dig someone’s grave.”

“Don’t be dramatic. We have acceptable use policies on the Web and the newspaper has its own quality standards. I’m sorry, Hedy, but you’re making the same mistake all over again—the mistake at the root of your paper. It’s understandable, certainly…”

She was painfully aware of all his evasiveness, all his soothing distractions, and knew there was no hope for further discussion. “Just tell me one thing,” she asked. “Would you publish an essay defending content controls on the Internet?”

“I’m not falling in that trap,” he answered, and then showed his first ray of levity. “I’ll let you in on one secret of the Internet: the authorities can read Web sites too. Tell your friends in the ACLU that my exercise of professional judgement is essential to my teaching relationship with you. That position was stated by the University of California and upheld by a federal court in Brown v. Li, November, 2000.”

She stomped out of the school and ran to the first people she saw, a couple of students named Andrew and Simon. “I’ve been censored!” she cried out. “Mr. Pomeroy trampled on my rights. And he thinks he’s respecting Independence Day!”

Eventually she calmed down and retold her conversation with the principal, Andrew and Simon listening with understanding nods. As she admitted, “This is the first time in my life someone has taken away something that’s rightfully mine,” an unbearable sense seized her that upon graduation she was entering into the normal life of the world, becoming just another poor jerk on the receiving end of things. “What can we do about it?”

“I’ve got an idea,” said Simon. He started to walk briskly down the street, the other two tagging along next to him, as he asked, “The Independence Day Celebration is in Union Park, you said?”

The Celebration

With beachballs bouncing about the fields, kites afloat beneath the blazing sun, and lemonade flowing freely, July 4 turned out to be an ideal day to be outdoors. A large crowd seated on the grass watched technicians put their final touches to sound equipment. Officer Mather was assigned to the northeast corner of the field. Swatting flies from his reddened face, he squinted and peered about at the lolling citizenry, but the afternoon was too hot for anyone to do anything even as dangerous as roll a bicycle down the playground slide. The officer noticed a couple teens carrying things that looked like cellular phones but were bulkier; as they dispersed to the edges of the field he thought no more about it. All the other police seemed to be as indolent as he, and as the crowd itself.

As a wake-up grunt like a punctured bass drum came from the sound system, a wiry, elderly woman in a smart dress mounted the remote podium. Her earnest voice emerged from the loudspeakers.

“Welcome to Union Park on this beautiful holiday, friends. I’m Grace Mofferty, the head of the parks commission, and soon we’ll be introducing the Mayor and several other wonderful speakers. We all use this holiday to remember, each and every year, the blessing of living in America and the freedoms it brings us. A phrase circulating at the time of our country’s founding, and perhaps uttered by Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, reminds us that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

Officer Mather was practically asleep on his feet by now.

“So first I’d like to turn over the stand to the principal of our high school, Jerry Pomeroy, who has some eloquent words for you.”

Mr. Pomeroy’s familiar, swaying figure replaced that of the parks commissioner, and another voice emerged from the speakers.

“The truth is that liberty is dying fast in this country, most of all in its so-called public institutions of learning. In our very own high school, the administration is so afraid of its own students that, just to keep them from using cigarettes, it locks half the bathrooms in the school. Can you imagine 2800 students trying to get by all day with just four bathrooms?”

The voice, as it happened, was not that of Mr. Pomeroy’s. This dignitary was, rather, engaged at that moment in randomly and desperately banging the controls on the podium and flipping the switches of the sound equipment. A technician joined him, but they could not seem to regain control of the loudspeakers.

“Every shred of natural human expression is prohibited in school rules,” continued the voice. “They load on hours of pointless homework just to keep us off the streets and leave us too tired to explore our healthy social and sexual impulses.”

A person in the crowd stood up and pointed toward the back. “Look! There’s a kid talking into a radio device!” Several people recognized the kid as Andrew, who cut out behind some delivery vans with Officer Mather and two other police on his heels. The loudspeakers fell silent for only a few seconds, though, until another voice took up the tirade.

“They tell us this country overthrew British oppression on Independence Day. But the Redcoats were virtually gentlemen compared to the oppression that’s being carried out with U.S. government funding this very day in places like Colombia, Iraq, and Indonesia.”

By now the technicians were trying to shut down the electrical power altogether, but their efforts were to no avail. Soon enough Simon, the source of the second voice, was discovered, but Hedy picked up the tirade on another device until the police finally cut the cables leading from the power supply to the loudspeakers and those huge beasts, after bellowing a mighty electronic groan of protest, fell into a momentous silence.

The Conversation

No one was present to witness the meeting. Heat having tamped down all activity for the summer, the high school was so quiet that Hedy’s footsteps could be heard all the way down the long hallway. Mr. Pomeroy was sitting quietly with his limpid eyes fixed on the open door when she appeared. And his first words were spoken in his characteristically unrevealing, sallow tone. “I knew you wouldn’t give up,” he said.

He tossed a report he had been reading onto the desk and leaned back with his hands on his head. “Ah, Hedy, Hedy! How can I find an appropriate response to the prank you played on July 4th?”

She said nothing. She expected nothing. Pomeroy looked not at her but straight across his desk, as if contemplating the photos of his pets. “I have been impressed with your career at our school, Hedy. All I am trying to do is teach you to employ your considerable talents in a responsible manner.”

“What could you possibly have to teach me?” She was shouting all of a sudden, with such passion that he sat bolt upright and looked at her face, at the lips twisted with hatred, the eyebrows clammed tensely together. But he returned her accusing gaze.

“You might have published your essay almost anywhere, you know. You could have distributed it as a pamphlet in the school. National magazines might have shown interest in it, perhaps even some law journals. I just couldn’t let it be associated with the school administration.”

“No, it didn’t reflect school values, did it? But a deal is a deal. I was supposed to have it published as a benefit of winning the contest.”

“Those are strange paths of logic that lead a wronged individual to seek relief in a sophomoric protest.”

Hedy realized that Pomeroy was an expert at changing the subject. She figured she could play his game. “You are not one to tell me to play by the rules.”

“I!” he exclaimed with just a bit more energy than usual. “I! Do you want others more powerful than me to tell you the rules?” He opened his desk drawer with a flourish and rifled through the papers within. “You were guilty of creating a public disturbance—of lewdness and indecency—of endangering the safety of citizens and law enforcement offices—perhaps (if the town wanted to get really nasty) even of violating the civil rights of the Independence Day Celebration organizers. Yes, you infringed on their First Amendment rights, by a strict interpretation of the statute! How do you like that twist?” he cried out with something almost like admiration for the gyrations of the law. “You even violated FCC emission regulations. Listen, Hedy, the government could throw the book at you. It’s time to grow up.”

Thus finished the opening engagement in their jousting. Pomeroy’s threat strangely failed to shake Hedy, but rather had the reverse effect. Sensing that she held a bit of power, however reactively, she cracked a nervous smile. “If they brought me to trial, there would be newspaper and TV coverage all over the country. The whole truth would come out. The school and the town would get a bad reputation.”

And to her surprise, he smiled too. “You are learning,” he said. “Now you are starting to understand.”

“I have angered you,” he continued expansively, “and many of your fellow students, and even some teachers and parents. Yet the grumbling will dissipate. The forces I have to please are in the town government and among the influential people in this community. And their assessment all depends on the media. It portrayed us as a bit incompetent on July 4th—yes, to be sure, we lost control for a moment. But our channels of control remained unchallenged; we continued to frame the issue. That is what kept us secure in our seats as July 5 rolled around.”

His terminology confused Hedy. Was it sleight of hand or actual insight? Despite her disdain, she began to wonder what she might be able to learn from this enigmatic adversary. Pomeroy sensed her uncertainty and mouthed some brief advice, more at his desk than at her.

“Cultivate your garden, Hedy, as a famous proponent of free speech once advised. Organize a fund, go out in your community, do a little for the needy here and a little there. Maybe the newspapers will give you the bottom of a column and the TV stations a five-minute human interest segment.”

“I don’t want to be an icon of self-sacrificing community service,” flounced Hedy. “I want to effect change.”

“Oh, that’s permitted too. You must accept, however, all the premises established by our current authorities. If you call them to account for a particularly asinine position, do in such a way as to acknowledge their hold on the controlling heights of policy. You must advance an agenda that is just a jot different from theirs, even if that means looking weak and taking positions that can’t be intellectually sustained.”

“Bah!” exploded Hedy, not so much in opposition to his words as in corroboration. “I’d rather just speak the truth to those willing to listen.”

“Then you need not count me among the listeners.” And here Pomeroy’s smile was one of satisfied accomplishment. “Or the leading politicians, or the mass media.”

“They drown us in lies!” Hedy knew logically that Pomeroy’s comment could have ended the discussion, but sensed instead an opening for more.

Pomeroy willingly took up her new thread. “Not necessarily,” he answered. And then almost flippantly, “Goebels was a heavy-handed fool. One does not need to lie very often.”

“They’re selective with their facts then; they cover up dissent.”

“Yes, but they don’t even have to do that.”

“They give people sound bites too short to make a point?”

“Now you’re citing Chomsky. It’s accurate, but the threads that bind the public go even deeper.” He straightened up. “Hedy, they could have you on national television and let you speak from the heart, yet no one would hear.”

She imagined herself on a syndicated talk show, amid the chintz and the cardboard living-room sets, the ads, the slick-haired interviewers, and felt she understood what he meant. “Why, though?” she exclaimed with dismay. “Why can’t people listen?”

“They listen when they feel it has an impact on things they care about.” Pomeroy slapped his hand down repeatedly into his palm to mark off each item. “Whether there will be enough gasoline for their car, whether there will be asthma medication for their child, whether there will be invoices to fill out in the office so they’ll keep their job next Friday. The experts understand these things, and understand how to keep discussion on a trivial level.”

“How can they do that?”

“By managing expectations. Marshall McLuhan explained to us why the media overwhelm discourse. The most cogent critique of the social order can be uttered on TV, so long as it is uttered by the same cherubic announcer who then talks about pet clothing—after a six-minute segment of ads for off-road vehicles and antibacterial soap.”

“Is that what McLuhan meant with ’The medium is the massage’?”

“That’s part of it. Look, you wrote about the meaning of Independence Day, right? Now remember the movie Independence Day. On the surface it displayed incorrigible political correctness. The heroes were African-American and Jewish—a statement in favor of diversity, one would think. But what was the underlying message from the alien attacks? That what you don’t know can destroy you, and that if you don’t fight back immediately you will die. The movie was a powerful incubator for social fears.

“And take the popular movie about Erin Brockovich.” he continued. “The overt message: powerful companies are corrupt and poor people have to unite to get their rights. The subliminal message: an entrepreneurial-minded person gets rich. Which of those values better characterizes society right now?

“Our English teachers can tell you that ambiguous, multi-layered messages about power and moral responsibility appear in the great literature, in King Lear, in The Brothers Karamazov. But subtle messages are embedded equally in mass culture. Don’t underestimate the ability of viewers to pick out the message they prefer to hear, and the ability of studios to provide that message in a palatable form.

“In the future,” finished Pomeroy, “we won’t even celebrate Independence day. Instead of July 4, 1776, our national holiday will be July 1, 1909: the date copyright was extended to recordings and other products of the mass media.”

Hedy was almost in tears now. “Is there no way to shake up people? No way to shock them, to disrupt their comfortable passivity?”

“Shock is easily absorbed by the media, which reduces it to novelty.”

One more hope came into her mind.

“What about the Internet?”

Now Pomeroy’s brow wrinkled in discomfort as he strove to accommodate a position toward this unwieldy new institution. He spoke in a softer voice. “The Internet is different. We don’t really understand it. No one knows what will appear at any particular site; it’s not predictable like a half-hour sitcom with family reconciliation at the end; it’s not laid out in two-inch columns or ten-minute segments. The Internet is always changing under us, and even the relationships among its actors haven’t been fully characterized.” He glanced almost shyly at her as he continued. “Certainly we haven’t been able to tame it. We will not rest comfortably until we do.” Now his face drew nearer and his voice drained down to a whisper for his final words. “We might lose.”

The ghastly intimacy made Hedy shudder, and she jumped up. “Then I will fight too! I will shake up the world, everywhere. I will not provoke—I will engage! I will find out what matters to people, and talk to them about it, and link it to my cause. On the Internet, yes, but also in town hall and on the talk show and in newspaper columns. And we will win!” She did not even realize that she was standing at the door. Before rushing out to her life and liberation, she suddenly remembered the first words Mr. Pomeroy had spoken that morning—“I knew you wouldn’t give up”—and took one last glance at his face, which gazed back at hers with equal intensity.


Andy Oram is an editor at O’Reilly Media. This short story represents his views only. It was originally published in the online magazine Web Review.