Home » Perspective » First Amendment theater: Our 5 freedoms on stage and screen

By , published on September 19, 2021

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Mario Savio, facing camera foreground, leader of the so-called Free Speech Movement at the University of California, gathered a crowd of some 3,000 students in front of Sproul Hall on the Berkeley campus on Dec. 2, 1964. The Berkeley Free Speech Movement refers to a group of college students who, during the 1960s, challenged many campus regulations limiting their free-speech rights. Savio, 21, told the crowd that sit-in demonstrators planned to occupy the second floor of Sproul Hall until the administration dropped disciplinary action against four free speech leaders. (AP Photo, used with permission from The Associated Press)

The five freedoms of the First Amendment are well-represented in America’s rich cultural history, including films and plays. An overview of free speech, press, petition, assembly and religion as seen onscreen and onstage.

Absence of Malice (movie, 1981)

Written by Kurt Luedtke and David Rayfiel, directed by Sydney Pollack. Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman) is reportedly a suspect in a disappearance and potential murder. But he has an alibi, and the reporter who wrote the article about his involvement, Megan Carter (Sally Field), was tricked into writing it. The film’s title refers to a type of defense against accusations of libel.

Absence of Malice

All the President’s Men (movie, 1976)

Written by William Goldman and directed by Alan J. Pakula, this political-biographical drama concerns a pair of journalists investigating the Watergate scandal. It’s adapted from a 1974 book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the journalists depicted in the film; they’re played by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford. Although the book covers a longer period of time, the film primarily shows the seven-month period between the break-in at Watergate hotel and President Richard Nixon’s second inauguration. Bernstein and Woodward face threats to their safety throughout the film, but they choose to bring the Watergate story to the public eye despite the dangers.

All the President’s Men

The Cradle Will Rock (play, 1937)

Written by Marc Blitzstein and first performed in 1937, this play portrays the struggle of a man named Larry Foreman to unionize the workers of Steeltown, USA. The town’s press, church and other institutions are controlled by Mr. Mister, a wicked, rich businessman who opposes unionization. The play was temporarily shut down before it opened on Broadway, leading to assertions that it was censored for being too radical. It is mostly sung-through, using popular styles of music from the time. The Cradle Will Rock is considered an example of Brechtian epic theatre, which attempts to alienate the audience’s emotions from the story in order to make them think logically about the piece, often centering around moral and social issues.

The Cradle Will Rock

The Crucible (play, 1953)

This play by Arthur Miller uses the story of the Salem witch trials as an allegory for McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare. It follows protagonist John Proctor and other inhabitants of Salem during the early 1690s as accusations of witchcraft cause widespread panic and lead to the unjust deaths of many. Although the events and characters of the story are based in truth, many aspects were dramatized and changed by the playwright. It takes place almost a century before the Constitution was written, and the characters suffer denial of free speech and, prominently, freedom of religion. Written and first produced in the midst of the Second Red Scare, the play reflects U.S. government persecution of alleged communists that was taking place at the time. In fact, Miller himself was later subject to congressional investigation due to his play’s commentary on McCarthyism.

The Crucible

Fahrenheit 451 (movie, 1966)

The film is based on Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel of the same name. The film was directed by François Truffaut. The story is set in a hypothetical future where a totalitarian government burns all books in order to suppress revolution and free thinking. The title refers to the temperature at which books and paper burn. Guy Montag (Oskar Werner) is part of a government force known as the firemen, who seek out and burn literature, but he begins to rebel against this practice after meeting his new neighbor,

Clarisse McClellan (Julie Christie). The original novel was written during the Cold War, like The Crucible, and was similarly motivated by the author’s disgust with McCarthyism, although Bradbury places more emphasis on the aspect of government censorship.

Fahrenheit 451

Good Night, and Good Luck (movie, 2005)

Directed by George Clooney, who also wrote the screenplay with Grant Heslove, and starring David Strathairn, Patricia Clarkson, George Clooney, Jeff Daniels, Robert Downey Jr. and Frank Langella. It’s a historical drama set in 1953, and is primarily about the conflict between veteran journalist Edward R. Murrow (Strathairn) and Sen. Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy’s widespread campaign against communism is in full swing, and an Air Force officer, Milo Radulovich has been discharged for refusing to denounce his family members as communists. It comes to light that the charges against Radulovich were kept in a sealed envelope at his hearing and weren’t allowed to be seen. When Murrow and his CBS News colleagues air the story, their journalistic responsibility is pitted against pressure from politicians and corporate sponsors.

Good Night, and Good Luck

Howl (movie, 2010)

This historical film, directed and written by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, is named after American poet Allen Ginsburg’s noted 1956 poem, which some consider one of the great works of American literature. James Franco plays Ginsburg as the story juxtaposes Ginsburg’s early life as a founding member of the Beat Generation with the 1957 obscenity trial that resulted from his poem’s publication.


Indecent (play, 2015)

Paula Vogel’s play tells the story of Jewish playwright Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance and its production. God of Vengeance is about a Jewish man who owns a brothel and is trying to give his daughter, Rivkele, a conventionally moralistic life. It explores themes of religious hypocrisy and people’s relationships with God. Indecent begins with the 1906 conception God of Vengeance in Poland and proceeds to its eventual Broadway production by an all-Jewish cast in 1923. Owing to its portrayal of a lesbian relationship between Rivkele and one of her father’s sex workers, as well as an outcry from the Jewish community in New York, God of Vengeance was forced to close immediately after opening, and the actors and director (but not Sholem Asch, who was also living in New York at the time) are brought to court on obscenity charges. Although somber overall, Indecent is also a celebration of Jewish culture and history, ending on a hopeful note and questioning social values of sexuality and censorship.


Inherit the Wind (play, 1955)

This play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee is based on the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, but isn’t meant to be an accurate retelling and features characters who were created for the play. Rather than Tennessee school teacher John T. Scopes, the man accused of teaching evolution is Bertram Cates, and the play’s setting of Hillsboro is not explicitly located in any particular state. The protagonist is Henry Drummond, Cates’ defense attorney, and the antagonist is Matthew Harrison Brady, the religious prosecutor. The play begins with Cates in jail awaiting his trial and follows the building conflict over evolution and religion. Though the Scopes Monkey Trial is the story Inherit the Wind uses, it employs it as a means to examine the Red Scare and the McCarthy trials, which were ongoing when the play was written.

Inherit the Wind

The Insider (movie, 1999)

Directed by Michael Mann. It’s based on a 1996 Vanity Fair article, “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” and follows Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a whistleblower from the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., and CBS producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino). They must defend Wigand’s testimony against CBS and Brown &Williamson’s attempts to suppress it.

The Insider

Lenny (play, 1971)

This is a biographical drama telling the story of Lenny Bruce, an American comedian whose often-obscene routines led to his act’s being banned by authorities. The ban eventually causes his life to spiral into drugs, sex and debt. First performed in 1971, the play was written by Julian Barry, who later wrote a screenplay for the 1974 film adaptation.


The Majestic (movie, 2001)

The film, written by Michael Sloane and directed by Frank Darabont, is set during the early 1950s, when Hollywood screenwriter Peter Appleton (Jim Carrey) is blacklisted due to the Red Scare. He’s involved in a car accident and wakes up with amnesia in the town of Lawson, where the residents mistake him for a local boy who fought in World War II and went missing during the conflict. As the townsfolk accept him into the town, Peter helps to reopen the school’s sole theatre and slowly regains his true memories.

The Majestic

Muckrakers (play, 2017)

Written by Zayd Dohrn. The action takes place over the course of a single night in the New York apartment of Mira, an idealistic young activist, who has celebrity journalist Stephen staying with her on behalf of an organization she works with. Stephen, it turns out, is a Edward Snowden-like character who has recently attained particular fame for leaking information about American abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two major themes of the play are freedom of information and privacy, which both characters’ lives center around and which come up as a frequent topic of conversation between them.

Notably, the playwright is the son of Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. They were leaders of Weather Underground, a radical left-wing organization, classified as a terrorist group by the FBI, which had the express goal of overthrowing American imperialism.

Nineteen Eighty-Four (movie, 1984)

Based on George Orwell’s classic novel, this movie was directed by Michael Radford. The novel was published in 1949 and the film, fittingly, was released in 1984. Written in the midst of the Cold War, the story warns of a possible future world controlled by totalitarian governments. The main character, Winston Smith (John Hurt), is an everyman living in the oppressive Oceania. He has vague memories of before the current regime, and, although he can’t openly express it, is unhappy with the completely repressed lifestyle that the people of Oceania are forced to live. Nineteen Eighty-Four serves as a window into this society through Winston’s eyes as he slowly begins to rebel and faces repercussions for doing so. Although the movie doesn’t (and can’t) keep every detail from the book, it faithfully adapts the plot and themes to film. Also stars Suzanna Hamilton and Richard Burton.

Nineteen Eighty-Four

The Paper (movie, 1994)

Directed by Ron Howard, written by Stephen and David Koepp. The film that takes place over the course of a single day. Henry Hackett (Michael Keaton) is an editor at a tabloid newspaper in New York who’s reporting on the case of the murder of two businessmen. Two teenagers have been arrested for the crime, but Hackett and his colleagues stumble upon a police cover-up and realize that the teenagers are innocent. Throughout the day, Hackett struggles to have the true story printed while juggling personal conflict with his family.

The Paper

The People vs. Larry Flynt (movie, 1996)

Directed by Miloš Forman, written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Following the life of American pornographer Larry Flynt (Woody Harrelson), this begins with Flynt’s childhood selling moonshine and leads through to religious conservative Jerry Falwell’s infamous court case against him. Throughout the movie, Flynt’s career and magazine are subject to vitriol and legal scrutiny for its obscene content, and a major point made by his defense attorney is that even though he doesn’t personally like what Flynt does, we live in a country where everyone is able to decide for themselves what to read and look at, rather than having the government decide for them.

The People vs. Larry Flynt

The Post (movie, 2017)

Directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer. This historical political thriller involves the press’s struggle to publicize the Pentagon Papers and expose the massive government cover-up of the Vietnam War. Its protagonist, Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), is the owner and publisher of The Washington Post who ultimately decides to print stories about the cover-up despite legal threats from the government. Both the Post and The New York Times are taken to court by the Nixon administration and ultimately win their case on First Amendment press-freedom grounds. The film has been criticized for underplaying the role of the Times in the publication of the Pentagon Papers, but it nonetheless tells an important story about the power and importance of a free press under the First Amendment. Tom Hanks plays Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the Post.

The Post

Red-Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins (play, 2010)

Written by Margaret and Allison Engel, the play portrays the life of Texas newspaper columnist and author Molly Ivins and features only one actor throughout the piece. Ivins worked for The Minneapolis Tribune, The Houston Chronicle, The Texas Observer, The New York Times, The Dallas Times Herald and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She was a frequent critic of Texas conservatives and George W. Bush, criticisms delivered with eloquent, sharp-tongued humor that eventually led to her national recognition. Ivins died in 2007.

Selma (movie, 2014)

Directed by Ava DuVernay, written by Paul Webb. The historical drama is based on the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery, Ala., marches for voting rights. Although the South had been legally desegregated in 1964, rampant discrimination still made it difficult for African-Americans to register to vote. King (David Oyelowo) meets with President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) at the beginning of the film to discuss federal voting legislation, but Johnson ultimately brushes him off. King and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference coordinate and lead the marches over the course of the film despite violence from police and racist opposition. The film ends with Johnson’s encouraging Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which it did, and King delivering his “How Long, Not Long” speech on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol. Also stars Tim Roth as George Wallace and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (movie, 2020)

Directed and written by Aaron Sorkin. A historical legal drama featuring an ensemble cast of Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Jeremy Strong and Ben Shenkman. The film follows the trial of the Chicago Seven, a group of anti-Vietnam War protesters charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intention of inciting riots. The judge shows a ridiculous degree of bias against the defendants, who respond with open antagonism. The film ends before the sentencing, but the historical Chicago Seven were acquitted of conspiracy, while five were found guilty on the riot charges. The judge found all seven and their two defense attorneys in criminal contempt for their behavior during the trial, sentencing them to substantial jail time. All convictions, except for a few counts of contempt, were later overturned on appeal.

Alexander Laudeman is a student majoring in public relations at Middle Tennessee State University.

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