Hollywood backlash: when boycotts chill free speech

Sunday, April 6, 2003

This just in: Janeane Garofalo is now more un-American than George Clooney.

After uttering at least two “anti-Americanisms” and having 158 people pledge to boycott her future work, Garofalo has edged out Clooney, Martin Sheen and Susan Sarandon as the single most offensive celebrity, according to the “Famous Idiot” Web site.

The site tracks what it regards as disloyal remarks by celebrities and then urges Americans to boycott any products associated with these performers. It also urges support for films and projects by celebrities it regards as patriotic. Prominent on the site’s “pro-American” list is actor Bruce Willis, who reportedly called President Bush and offered to enlist.

“This site is dedicated to exposing the elitists among us that feel compelled to speak out against the very country that afforded them the opportunity to earn a king’s fortune,” the site’s mission statement says. “The hypocrisy of their half-witted statements and their anti-American sentiments are testaments to their arrogance.”

Similar sites are popping up all over the Web. “Hollywood Half-Wits” is dedicated to “exposing the ignorance, insanity and anti-Americanism of Hollywood celebrities,” and also offers a list of “the most outrageously biased liberal reporters of 2002.”

The “Boycott Hollywood” site provides extensive news coverage of Hollywood-related controversies and also sells “Ignorance is Blix” bumper stickers.

These Web sites and others remind us of the vibrancy of free speech in America. Those who disagree with a celebrity’s public comments feel free to vocally and visibly express their own views. The Internet enhances the opportunity for all Americans to be heard.

I do wonder, though, whether these calls for economic retaliation undercut the very freedoms we hold most dear. These Web site operators have heard some of these criticisms and are quick to assert that they’re not guilty of McCarthyism.

“A boycott is a very American way to speak your mind. We’re not calling for the resignation of any celebrity. We are not calling for a blacklist by the studios,” Boycott Hollywood asserts. But is this true?

When Web sites compile lists of “anti-American” celebrities, post them publicly and call for Americans to boycott these celebrities, their message is clear: “We disagree with these performers. We’re going to say so, and then we’re going to take away as much of their livelihood as possible.”

The “Hollywood Half-Wits” site notes unattributed survey results that almost 48% of Americans would “be dissuaded from paying to see a movie that featured a celebrity activist whom they disagree with.” The site said this should be “of keen interest to Hollywood filmmakers and the marketers whose job it is to put as many butts in theater seats as possible.”

Granted, the 158 people who have signed up to boycott Janeane Garofalo won’t put much of a dent in her career, but a collective sense that it’s patriotic to economically damage people for exercising their constitutional rights can put a major dent in the exercise of free speech.

This mix of celebrities, politics and controversy is nothing new. It took years for Jane Fonda to get past the “Hanoi Jane” image (some still haven’t forgiven her), and Eartha Kitt didn’t work in this country for years after she criticized the Vietnam War at a White House luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson.

The criticism doesn’t come from just one end of the political spectrum. Sammy Davis Jr., for example, took a lot of heat for hugging President Richard Nixon at a White House dinner in 1973. Charlton Heston has been widely derided for his work with the National Rifle Association.

Even some of Hollywood’s most legendary stars have been caught in the fray. The House Un-American Activities Committee began hearings in 1947 into alleged communist activity in Hollywood.

In response, representatives of the Committee for the First Amendment – including such Hollywood all-stars as Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Gene Kelly, Danny Kaye and Frank Sinatra – flew to Washington to hold a press conference and criticize the HUAC hearings. They also broadcast a radio show called “Hollywood Fights Back.”

The backlash that followed almost ended Bogart’s career. He saved himself by issuing a press release in which he acknowledged he’d been “a foolish and impetuous American.”

The House Un-American Activities Committee remained in business, setting the stage for Sen. Joe McCarthy and years of blacklisting.

It’s easy to understand the anger of those who strongly support the war in Iraq and view anti-war comments and protests as disloyal to the United States. Some have said they fear the protests give comfort to our enemies.

If it’s true that protests in America give our enemies their greatest hope, it’s also true that heavy-handed efforts to suppress those protests confirm our enemies’ worst suspicions.

This is a time when we might all benefit from a little bit of self-scrutiny. Do we truly embrace the principles of the founding fathers, or are we more inclined to punish those who dare to utter views with which we disagree? Do we believe that we’re a stronger society if everyone feels free to speak their minds, or is there an impulse to chill the speech of those with differing views?

As Humphrey Bogart might say, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

Ken Paulson is executive director of the First Amendment Center with offices in Arlington, Va., and Nashville, Tenn. His mailing address is: Ken Paulson, First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212