[Guest post by Lee Stranahan]
I love this scene. I love this movie, too. Watch…
I believe in the First Amendment. Let me go further. I love the First Amendment – that scene makes tears well up in my eyes. For me, it started with comedy.
I was a comedy nerd as long as I can remember. When I was around eleven years old, every week after church, I’d walk across the grass field to shopping center where the Friendly’s restaurant was. There was also a drug store there and they had a one of those rotating carousels of paperback books and one of them was a book standup comedy routines.
I wanted that book for weeks. I’d read a little bit of it in the store. It was just transcriptions of routines by comics like Woody Allen and Gabriel Kaplan, when they did stand-up. This was in the mid-1970s, before Netflix and Comedy Central and HBO and cable television. Access to stand-up comedy for an 11 year old was tricky. Clubs were out. It was LP records and books.
Eventually, I got the book and it also featured Lenny Bruce. And so I was on the path of First Amendment, via Dirty Lenny.
I bought Lenny Bruce’s albums, which are so-so funny but I knew there was some kind of brilliant mind there. I read anything I could find about Lenny – sometimes at the library but often poring through the used books and magazines at Johnson’s Bookstore in downtown Springfield, Mass. I got a VHS copy of Lenny on stage close to the end of his life, reading from his legal briefs on stage.
From Lenny, I moved on to learn about other comedy heroes who fought censorship every step of the way – from George Carlin to Richard Pryor to Howard Stern to Bill Hicks. Later, I moved to an interest in other censored artists, mostly photographers like Mapplethorpe or magazines like On Our Backs. This is a consistent position of mine for decades; regardless of subject matter…I oppose censorship of all kinds; by the state, by lawsuit, by bullying.
And that winding road brought me to Andrew Breitbart. Here’s the thing about the people being censored – they often have a small but loyal group of fans but a wide range of detractors. And that’s certainly Andrew.
I get accused of defending Andrew because I work with him. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s my chosen destiny to be friends with the modern day First Amendment hero. And make no mistake, the establishment wants to shut him up. Lenny Bruce found fewer and fewer clubs he could play in and there’s a similar campaign by the left to cut off Breitbart’s outlets.
Shirley Sherrod’s lawyers say some pretty stupid stuff in their latest case pleading, but it’s pretty outrageous for them disrespect our Constitution as they do when they claim that Breitbart’s First Amendment rights aren’t at stake here. Sherrod’s sharks say…
Plaintiff can only presume that the heightened and inflamed rhetoric of their “Summary of Additional Facts” is the start of what will be Defendants’ larger, self-serving attempt to cloak themselves as defenders of the First Amendment. But far from aiming to quash Defendants’ political speech on the broad range of political topics addressed in Defendants’ Summary of Additional Facts, the relief Mrs. Sherrod seeks in her Complaint is specific, circumscribed, and limited to the specific defamatory falsehoods that Defendants published about her individually which are the subject of the tort claims alleged in the Complaint.
They are claiming that they aren’t trying to take away Andrew Breitbart’s right to talk about ALL political topics – just the specific stuff about their client.
Guess what? That’s what almost ALL defamation suits do. NYT v. Sullivan wasn’t trying to shut down the Grey Lady’s entire Op-Ed page; just the advertisement that alluded to Sullivan. Jerry Farwell’s lawsuit against Larry Flynt wasn’t trying to stop the public of Beaver Hunt; it was ‘specific, circumscribed and limited to’ the stuff that Flynt published about Falwell.
So, yep – Andrew Breitbart is likely cloaking himself in the First Amendment. And it’s on his side.
Shirley Sherrod was a public official. She was a government appointee in charge of over one hundred people and millions of dollars. Whether or not she was a public figure is irrelevant, by the way. She was a public official, without question, and that status is what’s important, not the ‘public figure’ standard that expanded on the Sullivan ruling a decade later.
You want to hear some sweet poetry? These quotes are from the New York Times v. Sullivan opinion by Justice Brennan.
Thus, we consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.
The present advertisement, as an expression of grievance and protest on one of the major public issues of our time, would seem clearly to qualify for the constitutional protection. The question is whether it forfeits that protection by the falsity of some of its factual statements and by its alleged defamation of respondent.
Erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate, and that it must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the "breathing space" that they "need
That’s our Law. It’s wonderful, It’s important because it allows us breathing space for robust debate and recognizes human fallibility. It allows us to discuss the great issues of our time without worrying that we’re under the constant threat of some government official suing us when we make a mistake or publish something about them that they don’t like.
You’re free to think whatever you want to think about Andrew Breitbart and Shirley Sherrod – but don’t support her lawsuit, which strikes at the very heart of your own freedom to think, speak and criticize the government.
- Lee Stranahan