Suspect Red, Censorship, and “Too Much” Speech


Last week, I came home from work to find a book resting on my laptop. Suspect Red, by L. M. Elliott, is a middle grade, historical fiction novel, and my eleven-year-old twins loved it enough to recommend it to me.

The fictional story, which alternates with nonfiction segments, is set in the 1950s. Senator Joseph McCarthy is at the height of his power. He’s accusing a growing list of so-called “disloyal” Americans of having Communist ties, and no one is safe from suspicion.

Fourteen-year-old Richard Bradley, the main character, can’t even read Robin Hood in peace:

“You can’t read that! [his mother tells him] … What if Mr. Hoover knew you’re reading this?”

Why would Mr. Hoover care about what I’m reading?” […]

“These days, Mr. Hoover seems to agree with everything Senator McCarthy says. And Senator McCarthy says a lot of books are subversive. Hidden commie propaganda.” […]

“But what’s that got to do with Robin Hood?” […]

“You know how I volunteer at the library? […] [T]o be safe, our librarians made a list of books we might have to pull from the shelves. It includes Robin Hood.”

“But why?”

“Because Robin Hood takes from the rich to give to the poor.” She added in a whisper, as if they could be overheard, “That’s a Communist concept.”

Richard’s family lives in the Washington, D.C. area, and his father is an FBI agent under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover. Richard looks up to his dad and hopes to impress him by spying on a new family in the neighborhood. As Richard becomes better acquainted with this family, he becomes caught between his developing loyalty to his friend and his desire to help his dad, whose career may benefit from Richard’s double dealing.

What should Richard do? What should he believe?

As his friend advises: “It doesn’t matter if you’re liberal or conservative, man, just make your own decisions about what you believe (page 264).”

This advice is timeless, but how we put it into practice has changed. 

Suspect Red depicts a time when people based their decisions on a relatively limited amount of information from traditional publishers and broadcasters. Virtually everyone read the newspaper and watched the evening news. Government censorship was the biggest threat to their ability to “make [their] own decisions,” and so courts interpreted the First Amendment to protect access to a wide range of speech, including potentially “subversive” or even false views. 

As Justice Brandeis wrote in his famous concurrence in Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927): “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

Thus, instead of banning books like Robin Hood (to the extent anyone can view it as controversial), the solution is to counter it with speech that promotes other ideas. 

Along these lines, in Please Stop Parenting My Children, I explained how I let my children read just about everything. I use the books that contain messages I don’t like as the basis for discussions about why those messages are wrong. As I said in that post, “[any] idea that can’t withstand a fair debate isn’t an idea worth passing onto the next generation.”

Of course, this strategy only works when I have the time to do it, and over the years, I’ve spent countless hours explaining my beliefs to my children to oppose the messages they’ve heard elsewhere. 

Time is something we don’t have much of these days, and without it, how can we assess the credibility of our sources or absorb speech that counters the false messages that proliferate on the Internet?

Fake news existed in Richard’s time–Suspect Red notes the use of fake letters and altered photographs–but without the Internet, its reach was more limited than it is today.

Today, social media confirms our biases, enables troll armies to silence speakers through harassment, and allows politicians and foreign governments to flood our feeds with false information. The impact of these types of speech is similar to old-school censorship: it deters its targets from speaking and/or drowns out information from more reputable sources.

It’s a problem without an easy solution in the United States, where, based on case law that developed in a different time, the First Amendment frowns upon government efforts to restrict speech. For now, social media services are largely free to regulate themselves without government intervention. 

In recent years, Facebook has taken steps to fact-check some content (albeit with an inexplicable exemption for political candidates), promote counterspeech, and ban some users who violate the terms of service, while Twitter plans to stop political advertising.  

These efforts are a start, but we have a long way to go before social media algorithms stop telling us what to believe.

I used Suspect Red as the basis for a discussion with my kids about the virtues and unfortunate consequences of our free speech principles. They engaged in the conversation, but at the end, all they really wanted to know was whether I liked the book. I did. I like any book that allows me to talk about the law, and this is a particularly good one. It’s a well-researched, realistic novel about a fascinating time.

5 comments

  1. I love that your kids left the book on your laptop for you to read. I love that you used the book as a way to talk to your kids about free speech. And I love that you used Bluebook citation format to cite your case 🙂

  2. Your posts always fill an empty space in me. They’re so timely, smart, and get me thinking. You don’t write in such a way that makes me instantly agree with you, because it doesn’t feel like that’s your objective. Instead, you write in a way that makes me question my own thoughts. In this case, the quote about more speech was excellent. Thank you for that.

    1. Thank you! I’ve been questioning my own thoughts on this topic lately. For a long time, I believed that more speech (counterspeech) was the only acceptable way to deal with speech I didn’t like. However, on the Internet, more speech just doesn’t work. We’re in bubbles that limit our exposure to counterspeech, and trolls/harassers are able to use more speech as a censorship tactic (by drowning out counterspeech). I don’t know what the solutions are to these problems, but I don’t think allowing social media platforms to regulate themselves is enough.

      1. The last semester I taught, I was still at the correctional facility. Because the students cannot do their own research (no internet), I asked that they all use the same 30 sources I gave them to write about free speech on college campuses. It was hard to come to a conclusion for me, which is why I assigned the topic (I didn’t want to already have an opinion). While I think it’s bad for a college to use half a million dollars in security to bring a troll to campus, and that the troll should be able to say what he/she wants but NOT be given a platform, I also wonder how dangerous those trolls are in changing the opinions of people who are susceptible to believing a trouble maker because the listener is already disillusioned.

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