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Cause Celebre: Actors and Their First Amendment Rights

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As far as I know, celebrities, like other American citizens, have the right to express their opinions in this country under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. Occasionally they do it for publicity, but most often they lend their voices and whatever power their familiarity wields to social and political causes in which they believe. And sometimes at some peril to their projects and status in fans’ eyes. 

The other day, actress Lisa Edelstein (House, M.D.) appeared in a television ad from the organization MoveOn.org. The ad expresses the concern that in the current political climate, a woman’s right to privacy and her right to an abortion may soon give way to a day when the only way a woman can abort a fetus is to resort to the dangerous and infamous “coat hanger” do-it-yourself abortions of ages past.

Already, there are states where doctors who perform abortions are virtually non-existent. There are alarming reports of state-level legislation targeting doctors who do perform them, even going so far as to make murder in the defense of an unborn fetus “justifiable homicide.” One such bill in South Dakota (HB1171), originally scheduled for a vote this week, has been put off until next week, while the sponsors reconsider the incendiary nature of its language.

The newly empowered conservatives in Congress have several proposals (including H.R. 3) in development to make it more difficult (if not impossible) for women to have an abortion—even in cases where the woman’s life is at stake. Personally I am pro-life and pro-choice. There is no mutual exclusivity to the the terms. But that is not for this article.

Celebrities have inserted themselves into the political debate for decades, even running for Governor, Congress—even president (many of those, including Sony Bono, Fred Grandy, and of course, Ronald Reagan, have been conservatives). Although those promoting a progressive/liberal agenda seem to outnumber those with a more conservative point of view, there are celebrities on all sides of the political spectrum who raise their voices in support of a particular agenda.

Clint Eastwood and Charlton Heston have for years spoken up about their views (and the NRA’s) on gun ownership rights and what they believe is an attack on the Constitution’s Second Amendment. Chuck Norris writes for conservative news outlet WorldNet Daily.

I’m not a big fan of Norris, and probably wouldn’t watch his movies even if he was the most liberal of liberals. On the other hand, I like Eastwood. He’s a brilliant director (and, on a House note, since this article began with Lisa Edelstein’s activism, he’s the perfect actor to play House’s birth father if he makes an appearance in the series).

And speaking of House’s dad, R. Lee Ermy (who plays House’s now-deceased father), is a very outspoken conservative. He also voices Sarge in the Toy Story movies. Am I going to boycott Toy Story movies? Not likely! But this actor, who has played one marine after the other, ever since his indelible performance in Full Metal Jacket (1987), ranted earlier this winter, “I think we should all rise up and we should stop this administration from what they’re doing because they’re destroying this country,” accusing the Obama Administration of remaking the U.S. into a socialist country. The retired gunnery sergeant later apologized for his rage. 

Celebrities using familiar names and faces in support of causes are nothing new. Their right to speak up and speak out should be no more or less than anyone else’s. It’s hard to forget that Hollywood was a specific target during one of the darkest periods in our history. In the days of Senator Joe McCarthy, actors, actresses, writers, directors, and producers were blacklisted and attacked for their beliefs. Those scars lasted for years after McCarthy slinked back into the woodwork from which he had crawled. It was only because of people using their public profiles to speak out—from Edward R. Murrow to Humphrey Bogart—that this era fortunately came to an end. At least for now.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • I wasn’t. I was comparing her to other famous actors like Ronald Reagan, Arnold S, Jesse Ventura, Sonny Bono and Fred Grandy (even tho I didn’t mention the last two by name). All of those had strong political opinions, voiced them and went on to political careers.

    I’m not suggesting that Lisa Edelstein has or will have any political aspirations (I doubt it), but this is a free country, and she has just as much right to voice her opinion as anyone else, no matter their “power” to be heard—whatever their political voice.

  • TheLastBrainLeft

    Actors have more power than I to sway public opinion. For some reason, our culture elevates their opinions. I could write an article for this website and no one would give a damn. So it’s dishonest to compare a famous woman like Edelstein to someone like you or me.

  • So, LastBrain, you have the right to say what you want to say, when and where you want to say it, but actors don’t? What about writers? What about musicians?

    If we go by your logic, Ronald Reagan would never have been president (for better or worse depending on your POV) and Arnold never would have been governor. We won’t even discuss Jesse Ventura.

  • TheLastBrainLeft

    The problem isn’t free speech, but the weight given to speech from certain cultural sources that do not warrant it intellectually. Famous actors have proven time and time again that they are just as ignorant, hateful and moronic as anyone else, yet whenever they open their ill-informed mouths, America is forced to listen. I wish Hollywood actors would simply do their jobs, collect their salaries and leave the major issues of the day in the hands of those qualified enough to deal with them.

    I still love Lisa, but is she wants to get controversial, it’s gonna cost her. She will have no one else but herself to blame.

  • Cannonshop

    #26 It’s about the urge to control, doc. The cloak of “morality” is nothing more than a rag covering the urge to dictate to others.

  • People (women) don’t go willy-nilly getting abortions when other ways to cope are actually available

    Quoted for truth.

    I’ve known a number of women who’ve got pregnant without meaning to, and although some of them considered it, not one of them actually elected to have an abortion.

    Here’s the thing: I’m middle-class and so were most of those women. They could afford the consequences of their mistakes.

    For women in some other sectors of society, however, the decision can be the difference between survival and destitution.

    Those who oppose abortion would do well to look at the social and economic factors that cause women to seek this most drastic of solutions, if they want the numbers to come down. Anti-abortion legislation will solve nothing.

    Ironically, though, those ideologically opposed to abortion are often the same people who are the least open to empathizing with the plight of those who abort.

  • Cannonshop

    #22 Whose rights are paramount, Ben? where would you limit the grasp of Government? What good is it, to limit Uncle Sam’s grasp of your wallet, if he can reach in and control your body?

    People (women) don’t go willy-nilly getting abortions when other ways to cope are actually available (and the ones that do, usually end up sterilized-even by the best procedures. Uterine scarring is uterine scarring. we probably can’t even GET to the emotional wounds having to make that choice cause-and they DO cause them-at least, in people who are not sociopathic.)

    It’s a simple calculus: two lives ended in a back-alley illegal procedure, or one. Make your choice-kill two, or kill one.

    Anyone who doesn’t understand the gravity of that decision, is either uninformed, or has the sort of problems that usually result in jail-time for other crimes.

    As a civilization, we’re still struggling with deciding not to let two people die on an abortion table-because one person still dies, but THAT is the choice, at least until better options can be (Technologically) developed.

  • KPP

    Good on Lisa E. I applaud her for publically voicing these issues. People need to look at the bigger picture and women deserve the right to choose.

  • I am surprised you did not mention “Hanoi Jane” Fonda, a co-founder of the Women’s Media Center, in your article, or Martin Sheen, for that matter. But then the list of celebrities with publicized political opinions is rather extensive.

    Of course the Gipper testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in Washington in 1947 and regarded the committee as a good thing, while he was president of SAG.

    Being a celebrity such as Fonda, Reagan or Sarah Palin, is like being an unelected public official. The good news is that one’s opinion gets press coverage. The bad news is that one cannot sue anyone for slander.


  • Ben

    What about the woman’s right to abstain, to choose a condom, or birth control? In what percentage of abortions is the life being terminated the result of rape or violence? What about the baby’s right to choose…………..LIFE?

  • Baronius

    Alan’s right. McCarthy wasn’t part of the blacklisting.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Yes, celebrities should have as much right to use every tool at their disposal to support their first amendment rights.

    But compared to Big Business and the Chamber of Commerce who also utilize first amendment ‘rights’ as they pretend to be pro-American, celebrities are really only relatively small fish in a really big pond.

  • Celia (#17), you really ought to learn to read, dear. I never advocated that “these ludicrous amendments& laws are pass,” as you put it. What I advocated was that Barbara contribute an article, which she has now done, so that we’d have an opportune comment thread in which to debate the issue and so that we’d know where she herself stands, which is important because she’s BC’s resident authority on House, M.D. and because she’s co-executive editor of Blogcritics.

    In the latter regard, let me also clear up something misleading in Barbara’s comment #11 above. “Note,” she writes, “that I did not put this article under my House, M.D. feature.” I never suggested otherwise. To the contrary, I wrote yesterday: “And when the progressive spirit moves her, Barbara also blogs at BC on politics.” I fully expected that an article by her would be most appropriate under the rubric of politics, not television.

  • The final paragraph of this article betrays a significant historical misunderstanding. Senator Joe McCarthy had nothing to do with the notorious blacklists of entertainers. Those were already in place by 1950, when McCarthy became the new face of anticommunism in Washington.

    As early as 1938, the House Un-American Activities Committee exposed communists in the Federal Theatre Project. In 1947, HUAC launched an investigation into communist influence on the motion picture industry. As a consequence of refusing to cooperate, the Hollywood Ten became in November 1947 the first and most famous blacklisted film artists.

    It wasn’t until 1953 that Sen. McCarthy took charge of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, a platform he used to embarrass the State Department and, in turn, the U.S. Army. He conducted no investigations of communists in Hollywood.

    Also, Ms. Barnett in the same paragraph cites Humphrey Bogart among “people using their public profiles to speak out” and bring the blacklisting era “to an end.” That is far from the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, Madame Chairman. A liberal Democrat, Bogie was part of a movie-star delegation who flew to Washington in October 1947 in support of the Hollywood Ten. However, Bogart and his pals John Garfield and Edward G. Robinson each subsequently wrote magazine articles claiming they’d been duped. In March 1948, Bogart absurdly contended that he hadn’t realized the blacklisted writers were in fact communists, and denied he’d ever defended them. What a weasel!

  • Celia

    Women will die if these ludicrous amendments& laws are pass….Alan’s ‘hurt feelings’ notwithstanding. Good for Lisa & good for you Barbara for tackling this topic & staying on topic.Our bodies. Our right.

  • A thoroughly unprofessional response.

  • Let’s just say I’m justifiably skeptical. And calling me unprofessional does little to assuage my skepticism. I’m done for the night.

  • In other words, this is all about payback, isn’t it, Barbara? I’ve done something in the distant past to offend you. Therefore I am scum, who cannot possibly turn over a new leaf and make a fresh start. I must be punished forever for my misdeeds, real or imagined. Nice.

  • Not what I said.

  • … a victim of First Amendment repression …

    Who on earth are you talking about? Whose rights have I repressed?

  • Alan, you and I have verbally tussled before and you have no difficulty insulting me. Your accusation on the other thread that somehow I somehow had a motive in not responding to the thread or writing a NewsFlash on the ad was not concealed by your discussion of my qualifications regarding House–which have no bearing whatsoever on this issue. Note that I did not put this article under my House, M.D. feature.

    Roger’s comment was not an insult, just an observation that perhaps one might walk in the shoes of a victim of First Amendment repression before criticizing its use. That’s how I took it, and with what I was agreeing.

  • Barbara Barnett (#7), please explain what I wrote that so offended you that you agree with Roger’s snide comment.

    Yesterday, in calling for you to weigh in on this controversy, I treated you with respect. I repeatedly cited your qualifications and expertise on the subject of House, M.D. I voiced the hope that you would write an article about Ms. Edelstein’s MoveOn.org ad We Won’t Go Back, which you have now done. Yesterday, however, you indicated that you felt no need to contribute such an article, so I expressed my disappointment. But I did not resort to cheap shots the way you and Roger have done against me. Fact is, I even defended you and all other House, M.D. fans against Roger’s contemptuous putdown of you as having “forfeited whatever intelligence you had” because you admire this series.

    I remain disappointed by you Barbara, this time at your lack of professionalism. I honestly thought you were a cut or two above the likes of Roger Nowosielski.

  • You see how good Woody was in the movie? I really believed he was the director! Of course it was Martin Ritt who directed it (my bad–and many apologies). Ritt, writer Walter Bernstein and several actors including Zero Mostel and Herschel Bernardi, among others were victims of the blacklist. I also really love the movie Guilty by Suspicion with Robert DeNiro. It’s powerful drama about the era.

  • El Bicho

    a good movie, but Woody only acted in it

  • Roger–just saw your second comment. I would agree with your comment re: AK

  • I taught a university class on the Blacklist days using The Front as my base text (and supplemented). I assume you’re talking about The Front 🙂

    What I love about it is how Woody used so many blacklisted actors and crew on that film. Brilliant. And funny as hell.

  • Which brings up an unfinished thought. Mr. Kurtz ought to have lived through the blacklisting era before opening his big mouth.

  • Excellent movie, and you can see it at no charge at Crackle.

  • Thanks, guys.

  • hwl40



  • beccalampert

    I just want to say thank you lisa for doing such an amazing think for all the womans in the world,they have the right to choose and i agree with you 100 %.you’re an inspiration for standing up and use your power as a celeb for what you believe. thank you ,much love,x.