In 1996 my friend, Howard Lyman, a 4th generation cattle rancher/feedlot operator was a guest on the Oprah show. Following that show, a group of powerful Texas cattle ranchers who found what Howard said offensive filed a 20 million dollar lawsuit against him and Oprah, under a recently enacted Texas law intended to stifle free speech.
I told Howard about the recent pushback from my blogging about the Kaw Valley Seed Fair being unfair and the Kaw Valley Farm Tour where I saw animal cruelty, being green washed as, “Humane.” Howard reminded me that when he was on trial in Amarillo Texas, where virtually everyone had ties to the cattle industry, it was obvious the jury didn’t like him informing people about disturbing practices in that industry, and were looking for a reason to rule against him, and in support of the cattlemen. Yet through multiple trials Howard prevailed for one reason. He told the Jury, “We cannot restrict the free speech of others without also restricting our own.” And the jury, who hated Howard agreed.
I’ve taught cooking classes for many years at The Lawrence Community Mercantile, our beloved natural foods coop, where I am also a member/owner (as "The Merc" refers to those who have purchased a membership.) My class evaluations have been excellent, and my upcoming class was full. We were discussing my proposed title for my March class, when suddenly I was informed I would not be allowed to teach at all in March because of the, “Swirl” in the community regarding my outspoken blogs. This was not a total surprise; I had been experiencing increasing censorship in recent years. For instance I was not permitted to title a class, “Forks over Knives” (referencing the popular documentary showing people’s lives being saved by a plant based diet). In fact I was specifically told to not even say that phrase in class, because it was too inflammatory. Nor was I allowed to use this popular explanation in a class description; “Veganism begins with vegetarianism and takes it to its logical conclusion.” They considered that “Too judgmental.”
What exactly is so terrible about being judgmental? Why is “judgmental” being used to shut down discussions that might help reduce cruelty to animals? I can think of plenty of ways I am judgmental that all these folks would approve of – for example I am judgmental about drunk drivers, GMOs, and policies that facilitate systemic racism, so why can’t I be judgmental about policies that harm animals? Who is deciding which judgments are ok and which are not appropriate for expression. Or whose interests get affirmed while others’ are trampled?
In 1915, the University of Pennsylvania fired economics professor Scott Nearing (author of “The Good Life”) because he spoke publicly about the need to abolish child labor. Nearing’s comments offended U Penn board members who were beneficiaries of this practice. While tabling at the Kaw Valley Seed Fair and on my personal blog, I have spoken publicly about the need to abolish animal cruelty. In various communications with me, Seed fair organizers have said I was uninvited because my message was judgmental and even said, “The seed fair is not a place to try to influence people.”
Those who control the venues that won’t allow me their platform to speak openly about what I embrace or find ethically problematic in our community, keep telling me, “This is just one venue – there are plenty of others at which you can speak,” and often suggest the Lawrence Public Library. While it is free and open to me, it is difficult if not impossible to inform library patrons of my events. I do not have the funds to take out ads in local media, and after the library’s renovations, they adopted more restrictive policies. They will not place a notice about patron organized events taking place in their public meeting rooms on their calendar, newsletter, nor information screens. Patrons can no longer reserve display cases to share information and we are prohibited from organizing displays of library materials for check out by others. Only one public bulletin board is provided and it is so far off most people’s path, that few even know it is there. Interestingly, these new policies do not make it harder for powerful corporate entities (who make large donations to the library) from getting their message out. All these “little” decisions remove options for citizens to communicate with the community about critical issues, further concentrate power in fewer hands, and discourage minority perspectives in public spaces. Future generations may look at what is happening here and now in Lawrence the way many of us look back at things like Jim Crow Laws, Scott Nearing’s dismissal from teaching, or Pete Seeger’s blacklisting during the McCarthy Era, when we ask, “How could good people have failed to see how they were enabling such injustice?” Yet, all too often those pushing for justice and change get marginalized. In his letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Wrote: “I was rather disappointed that my fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist.”
In March of 2015, disappointed with the marketing focus of The Merc – I made and presented a short power point to The Merc’s board of directors. It pointed out, that if shoppers in America bought groceries in proportions reflective of the Merc’s advertising, it would accelerate climate change, and probably increase rates of chronic disease. I showed how this contradicted the Merc’s currently stated, “Ends.” (which they changed In the months following my presentation to be even more vague and this appears to have resolved the dissonance.) The board told me they would discuss my presentation and give me an official response. Not only did I never get a response, but following that presentation, I was excluded from communications that went out to all the cooking class teachers. when I noticed the new schedule went up and I was not on it and asked why, I was told that it was because the board had been upset with my presentation. Only when I confronted my supervisor directly (fortunately she is someone with a long history of embracing social justice) with this question: “Are you telling me that as a coop member in good standing, if I see something ethically problematic and attempt to make my case to the board, I risk losing the opportunity to teach classes here?” was I permitted to get back on the teaching schedule.
I want to be clear – I am not wanting to put The Merc out of business. I love what The Merc was and could again be -- a place that welcomes diverse perspectives, instead of censoring thoughtful dissent by calling it judgmental or branding it, “Not welcoming.” (Which is what The Merc called my newsletter when telling me why they had been shredding copies of it I had left in their café --below this article I have copied the entire communication for you to read for yourself.) There are many great people there working hard to do good things too, but I am unhappy with policies there that suppress free speech and diverse perspectives, while making a big deal about the little dietary factors contributing to climate change (like food miles) while ignoring THE ONE factor, that according to the United Nations contributes more to climate change than the entire transportation sector (animal agriculture). Our local coop could nurture and empower justice, thus securing tremendous loyalty in the community – as they once had. But when those in charge actively suppress the free speech of members acting on their conscience, and then justify it, by saying this is necessary in order to survive the competition, something very wrong is happening. But rather than withdraw my membership, I have attempted again and again to dialog in meaningful ways with those who run the Merc and I encourage you to do the same. It will only get better if enough of us speak up and ask for that change, and not just at The Merc, at the Seed Fair, at the Journal World, at the Library. Let’s make Lawrence a place where free speech, and a diversity of perspectives are Welcomed!
I believe that part of what it means to be a good citizen, is to speak up when one recognizes something as ethically problematic, and I am trying to do my part. But if those of you reading this, don’t also do this, we will not reclaim what has been lost. If my free speech can be restricted yours can be too. As James Madison said, "I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.”
You can see the email that The Merc sent to me making it clear I was not to state in my class that when it comes to chronic disease, "The dinner fork may be more powerful than the surgical knife." on THIS PAGE.
(Here is the email exchange between The Merc's marketing manager and myself that I refer to above in this article)
. JoAnn Farb’s Email exchange with
. The Merc’s marketing manager
Date: Wed, 9 Dec 2015 11:05:15 -0600
Subject: Publications within The Merc Co+op
Thank you so much for your continued partnership with our co-op classes. We are proud to be able to offer our community classes that highlight alternative diets and perspectives.
We have noticed that copies of your publication, Feast Lawrence, are being dropped off in our cafe’s publication receptacle each month. While we appreciate and understand your desire to share that news, we do have a policy of posting only publications that we have an established advertising relationship with, such as: Taste for Life, Feast and Liberty Press.
The past few months staff has been removing these copies and shredding. With that in mind, I wanted to reach out to you so that we can avoid the loss in terms of printing and paper.
Thank you for understanding. We appreciate the work you do!
On 12/9/15 11:23 AM, "JoAnn F"
I really do appreciate you letting me know this so that I am not wasting my money!
That said....every month that the Feast Lawrence News has been out, I have advertised my Community Mercantile Cooking Classes, and I link to The Merc's website from my own website.
The Merc has so publicly embraced what is local -- and my newsletter is more local to Lawrence than any of the others that you currently allow in this space. The content of my newsletter is also focused upon health, environmental sustainability and social justice -- with the primary goal of helping to bring about a more just and compassionate world. The other publications that you allow are profit and/or corporate driven -- so the Feast Lawrence News actually has more in common with established coop values.
Would you approve the Feast Lawrence News on this basis of all of the above, so that it can also be one of the publications that are sanctioned to be in the receptacle?
Thanks so much,
JoAnn Farb .
Date: Wed, 9 Dec 2015 11:46:30 -0600
Subject: Re: Publications within The Merc Co+op
Re: Publications within The Merc Co+op
I appreciate the comments and points that you make below. I wish to stress that I am not arguing against the content of your publication, nor making a statement for or against the consumption of animal products as a whole. However, I fear that your publication relays sentiments that directly conflict with our desire and our brand promise to be welcoming, upbeat and nonjudgmental to all our owners and shoppers.
Thank you for your ownership and participation with the co-op. Should our publications policy change, we will be certain to contact you.
On 12/10/15 10:48 AM, "JoAnn F" <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
If it is your intention to be welcoming, upbeat and nonjudgmental to all Merc owners and shoppers, perhaps you would indulge me a moment to share with you a minority perspective, within our diverse community.
Not all of The Merc’s owner/members find images of dead and dismembered cows, pigs, chickens and fish appealing. Some have had personal relationships with these animals similar to those that most Americans have with cats and dogs. Dozens of people have told me how The Merc’s increasing emphasis on promoting consumption of animals and their bodily excretions is so unwelcoming to them that they rarely shop at The Merc anymore.
How many people would be outraged if you started advertising dog and cat meat? Would you call their attempts to raise awareness of such an injustice “judgmental?”
Imagine if you will, walking into The Merc and seeing a large picture of a Labrador retriever puppy that was dead, its hair removed and its anal cavity stuffed full of bread crumbs and herbs. Imagine getting weekly emails from the Merc, that although filled with information you DID want to read, you had to scroll through disturbing images of dead cats, with their severed heads removed and cooked to a golden brown. Would that make The Merc feel welcoming and upbeat to you? If you went to the café and looked for something to read, but the only things available reinforced this perspective, would that feel welcoming and upbeat?
To be told that the Feast Lawrence News is not appropriate for the café, when every periodical you provide is filled with blatant violence against animals – and give no thought about how unwelcoming THOSE are for some, is inconsistent. Why is the minority disregarded, while actively censoring/shredding honest information that could help others decide for themselves which products support values they already hold – about not unnecessarily causing harm to other beings, or about selecting products with the lowest carbon, and water footprints, so we don’t hasten the disappearance of island nations, or increase drought? Why does your policy respect only one perspective?
It is one thing for The Merc to claim that selling meat, dairy and eggs is being driven by customer demand. It is another entirely for the Merc to selectively enable only distribution of information that will welcome the majority while deeply offending the minority – when they are peaceful and seeking only to inform. The Merc would be more welcoming if it allowed all perspectives that are not violent or hateful.
I respectfully request that you reconsider, and provide space for the Feast Lawrence News in the Merc’s café. This would be most consistent with coop principals, and give customers an alternative to publications which offend those waking up from the culturally taught desensitization to injustice, that makes it hard to recognize violence right in front of us.
Thu 12/10/15 11:13 AM
Our café’s publication policy is not based on perspective, but about—as stated in my original email below—an established advertising relationship. Should that policy change, I will contact you first.
Thank you for your time and for sharing your thoughts.
A final note: as a result of people sharing my story about attempts to limit my free speech here in Lawrence, A public school teacher who lost his job for his Facebook Post that criticized veal production, contacted me. There are parallels between his story and what is unfolding here in Lawrence right now. Check out this YouTube about Keith Allison.
For an update of what happened after this article was posted, read:
The Merc Makes Another Move -- JoAnn Farb Responds
If you'd like to see the power point presentation that I presented at the March 2015 Lawrence Community Mercantile board meetings, you can see it HERE -- be sure to look at the "notes" that are with it -- as these were the words I spoke while showing my power point slides. (I had not put notes on every slide at the time of my presentation)
If you'd like to see the email exchange between myself and the Marketing department of The Merc it is here.
I included the Lawrence Journal World in my list of those who have failed to uphold free speech, due to the fact that I have informed multiple people there about problems mentioned in this article, and so far they have remained completely silent on this issue.
If you would like to see what my December Feast Lawrence Newsletter looked like -- the one that The Merc was deliberately shredding due to them considering it to be in conflict with their brand promise to be welcoming, upbeat and non-judgmental, you can read it here.
And here is the Feast Lawrence Newsletter from the month before that one --in November 2015
CLICK HERE for a printable version of this article that you can hand out to people or use in educational settings.