One annual event that highlights the First Amendment, and particularly the rights of freedom of speech and press, is the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which is held in a hotel in Washington, D.C., currently the Washington Hilton. Since 1983, this banquet has featured a notable comedian whose job in part is to roast the president and other leading political figures. The president also typically delivers a speech, which is generally applauded in part by the degree to which the president is willing to be self-deprecating.
The dinner is sponsored by the White House Correspondents’ Association, which was formed after Woodrow Wilson announced in 1914 that he would hold regularly scheduled press conferences, and members of the White House press corps joined together after false rumors circulated that a congressional committee would decide which of them could attend (Cohen 2018). The association held its first dinner in 1920, and four years later, Calvin Coolidge became the first of most successive U.S. presidents to attend.
The early years featured celebrity performers, with attendance being limited to men. Helen Thomas, the famed White House reporter (who later served as president of the Correspondents’ Association), persuaded President John F. Kennedy to refuse to attend until women were admitted, but she then initiated the current practice of delivering a comic monologue (Waisanen 2015, 341). Beginning in 1987, the banquet has expanded from about 50 people to over 3,000, including numerous celebrities who add luster to the event, which is televised.
The event serves as a way of raising funds for scholarships for journalism students, for presenting awards to journalists for their coverage of the White House, and a way of celebrating the First Amendment. Beginning in 2017, the event was preceded by an annual Toast to the First Amendment sponsored by Real Clear Politics and a variety of alcohol producers who seemed almost as interested in toasting the 21st Amendment repealing national prohibition as in toasting the First Amendment (Milliken 2018). That toast now appears to be incorporated into the Correspondents’ Dinner itself.
In Hustler v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988), the U.S. Supreme Court decided that parody is protected speech under the First Amendment, and one of the hallmarks of a liberal society is the ability of its leaders to take criticism. President George W. Bush appeared to enjoy being parodied by Dana Carvey although he was not so amused by the roasting that he received at the dinner from Stephen Colbert (Ginsberg 2012). President Barack Obama was particularly good at using stand-up comedy at these and other events to strike at his political opponents while enhancing his own likeability (Nixon 2019). One indication of President Donald Trump’s contentious relationship with the press was that he did not attend these events when he was president, which did not exempt him from ridicule.
In his remarks at the dinner in 2022, President Joe Biden made a point of saying that “you, the free press, matter more than you ever did in the last century.” He also lauded “journalists killed, missing, imprisoned, detained, and tortured; covering war, exposing corruption, and holding leaders accountable.” Again in 2023, Biden praised the press, recognized basketball star Brittney Griner, who had been released from a Russian prison, and pleaded for the release of American journalists who had been imprisoned by foreign governments. Lauding “a free and fearless press,” Biden observed that “you make it possible for ordinary citizens to question authority – and, yes, even to laugh at authority – without fear of intimidation. That’s what makes this nation strong.”
In a similar vein, in his speech at the 1986 dinner, President Reagan observed that “this is also the night of the Kremlin Correspondents Dinner in Moscow. That’s when the members of the Soviet media gather to laugh at Gorbachev’s jokes—or else” (Waisanen 2015, 346).
Associated Press. April 29, 2017. “In Trump’s Absence, White House Correspondents dinner focuses on First Amendment.”
Joseph Biden. May 1, 2022. “Remarks by President Biden at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.”
Joseph Biden. April 29, 2023. “Remarks by President Biden at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.”
Jennie Cohen. April 27, 2012. “History of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.”
Elisabeth Ginsberg. 2012. Beautiful Trouble. OR Books.
Kaitlin Milliken. April 27, 2018. “Journalists toast First Amendment on eve of correspondents’ dinner.” The Hill.
James Nixon. 2010. “’You Think I’m Joking’: Examining the weaponized Comedy of President Obama’s Stand-Up Addresses at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.” Studies in American Humor 5: 103-123.
Katie Rogers. April 28, 2023. “Press Freedom! Celebrities! (Also, the President.) The New York Times.
Dan Waisanen. “Comedian-in-Chief: Presidential Jokes as Enthymematic Crisis Rhetoric.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 45 (June): 335-360.
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