Free Speech Friday: What Ray Bradbury taught me about freedom of speech

Ray Bradbury in 1975 (Photo by Alan Light)

 Reports of author Ray Bradbury’s death were at the top of my news feed when he died in June, and with good reason: The 91-year-old author of the sci-fi classic “Fahrenheit 451” wrote more than 27 novels and 600 short stories, selling more than 8 million copies in 36 languages. To many people, Bradbury embodied the science fiction and fantasy genres. For me, however, Bradbury’s name will forever be linked with high school.

I had been familiar with Bradbury since elementary school (several of my family members are sci-fi and fantasy aficionados) but hadn’t read much of his work. Then in my senior year of high school, my AP English teacher assigned us what she called the “futuristic trilogy,” which also included “1984” and “Animal Farm.” We read them not only as literature but also as a possible glimpse into the future, a future in which the literature we so reverently studied – Hemingway, Steinbeck, Shakespeare – was irrelevant or even forbidden. This was why, out of the three novels, Bradbury’s was the one that resonated most with me. A land where books are a sin? Where firefighters don’t put out fires, but seek out books, our beloved books, and destroy them? Sacrilege.

I was already a writer, having worked on the school newspaper since the eighth grade. I’d already had one run-in with censorship my first year on the paper when someone reportedly complained about my use of the word “fart” in the humor column I wrote. Now, at 17, I already feared for the future of freedom of speech. I found it ironic that we were studying issues of free expression when we had none ourselves. I went to a school district that was especially concerned with preserving the status quo, and didn’t like it when the students didn’t conform to traditional values. In grade school, my PE teacher frowned, shook her head violently and sighed when she saw my white, glittery nail polish. “Lea, Lea, don’t you have any pink?”

It was difficult to hang on to my sense of self and my ability to speak up in an environment like that, but in “Fahrenheit 451” I saw people defy an even more oppressive government. Even though the government banned books, people memorized them. Their love of the written word outweighed their fears of a totalitarian and unfair government. I knew then that I had to abandon the status quo, continue questioning everything and strive for honesty in everything I wrote. That’s still difficult, especially in a world when even journalism, once called the “fourth estate” is now corporate and commercialized, but when I picture how the future could be, a future like that in “Fahrenheit 451,” I realize we must continue to protect these ideals no matter how frustrating. Once we stop, we may lose those freedoms forever.

Bradbury is often credited with elevating the status of science fiction and fantasy from that of second-class entertainment to respected literature. This is an important contribution, and one I’m glad of, because I think those genres, though seemingly so far removed from our own experiences, teach us a lot about our motivations, our fears and what we might become if we don’t stop to remember what’s important to us and protect those rights, freedoms and ideas.

Ray Bradbury in 1975 (Photo by Alan Light)

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