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First Amendment Must-Reads

Your First Amendment Reading List (We’ve got movies too!)

Want to learn more about the First Amendment? Our must-reads list is a great place to start! Once a month, our First Amendment reading list will showcase a book or film, selected by the FAM staff, focused on the First Amendment that we think deserves your attention. We hope these books and movies will inspire, educate, and entertain you on many of the various topics related to the First Amendment.    


January 2023
Indelible City

By Louisa Lim

Published 2022

306 pages

What’s it about?

Indelible City is an intimate and personal account of the crackdown on freedom of speech, expression, assembly, and the press that was conducted by the Chinese Communist Party against the people of Hong Kong from 1997 to today. Author Louisa Lim explores the history, culture, and society of Hong Kong and how it was all turned upside down by government suppression. The book also chronicles how the people of Hong Kong found unique and creative ways to resist and preserve their identity. Interestingly, the book holds the various narratives found within the text together by anchoring them to the story of the life of Hong Kong artist and activist Tsang Tsou-choi, who used his art to resist government oppression in various forms.

Why we loved it

This book is beautifully and poetically written. It is part memoir, part history, part travelog, and part manifesto. It is an accessible read that explains the history and culture of Hong Kong in a way that would be interesting to even someone who knows nothing about the city or its plight. Lim also makes you care about the city and its people. Through her prose and vignettes, Lim conveys what makes Hong Kong unique and can make the reader feel as if they have a personal connection to the city, even if they do not. Lastly, the book shows, from a very personal point of view, what it is like to have your freedoms stripped away. It can be, at times, a chilling account. Yet that is why it is important to read regardless of your interest in Hong Kong. To read about how a once-thriving city can be stifled by government suppression is a story everyone should pay attention to.

November 2022
Inherit the Wind

Directed By Stanley Kramer

Starring: Spencer Tracy, Frederic March, Gene Kelly

1960

128 minutes

What’s it about?

Based on the 1955 play of the same name, Inherit the Wind is a powerful film that uses a fictionalized version of the infamous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial as an allegory for the Second Red Scare of the 1950s. In the film, a science teacher named Bertram Cates is arrested in a Southern town for teaching evolution in the classroom, violating state law. During his trial, two superstar lawyers, played by Spencer Tracy and Frederic March, battle over the fate of Cates. Throughout the trial, the two debated topics such as religion, the separation of church and state, freedom of speech, academic freedom, and more. The movie was released shortly after the Second Red Scare ended and strongly criticized close-mindedness, mob mentality, fear politics, bigotry, and more.

Why we loved it

Inherit the Wind is a brilliant movie that does a lot at once. Although it takes creative license with the facts of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, the film still mirrors that event pretty closely and simultaneously uses it as an allegory for the Second Red Scare of the 1950s. Because of everything going on, it is a fun film to unpack, dissect, and reflect upon after watching. However, the writing and the acting are top-notch. It doesn’t get much better than seeing Hollywood heavyweights like Tracy, March, and Kelly working with an Academy Award-nominated script. Any First Amendment buff will enjoy the themes discussed in the film around freedom of speech and religion.

October 2022
Madison’s Music: On Reading the First Amendment

By Burt Neuborne

Published February 2015, by The New Press

272 pages

What’s It About?

Madison’s Music is a modern classic amongst First Amendment junkies. Throughout the book, author Burt Neuborne traces the history of the First Amendment. However, Neuborne takes this a step further by also applying this history to frame modern policy prescriptions that he believes will improve civil rights and discourse in the United States. This book is as much an argument for certain policies, interpretations of the First Amendment, and social beliefs as it is a historical narrative of the evolution of the First Amendment.

Why We Loved It

Madison’s Music eloquently and convincingly frames the First Amendment as a narrative, a poem, or, of course, a piece of music. The freedoms protected by the First Amendment were not first expressed, even in the American context, in the First Amendment. Nonetheless, James Madison, the author of the First Amendment, was the first to synthesize them in a way that highlights how the freedoms work together (see more about that here). Madison’s Music is also slightly controversial and has led to rebuttals and critical analysis, such as in The Soul of the First Amendment (review coming soon) by Floyd Abrams. The fact that this book can effectively argue its thesis while generating debate is one major reason why the staff here at the First Amendment Museum loves this book and added it to our reading list!

September 2022
The People vs. Larry Flynt

Directed By Miloš Forman

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, Ed Norton, Crispin Glover, and Burt Neuborne

1996

130 minutes

What’s it about?

The People vs. Larry Flynt is a biopic about Larry Flynt, the founder of Hustler magazine. Throughout his life, Flynt was a staunch advocate for and defender of the First Amendment. Hustler is an adult magazine that features political cartoons, satirical essays, pornography, and more. As a free speech absolutist, Flynt was often charged with obscenity, libel, and slander. However, his crowning achievement was winning the infamous Hustler Magazine v. Falwell (1988) Supreme Court decision, which upheld the right to comically satirize and lampoon public figures.

Why we loved it

The People vs. Larry Flynt chronicles one of the most influential advocates for freedom of speech during the 1980s and 1990s, terrifically recreating Flynt’s assassination attempt after fighting an obscenity charge in Georgia and his fight for freedom of speech in the Hustler v. Falwell case. But the film’s climax is a rousing speech by Ed Norton’s character advocating for freedom of speech in front of the Supreme Court. 

August 2022
THE FIGHT FOR FREE SPEECH: Ten Cases That Define Our First Amendment Freedoms

By Ian Rosenberg

Published February 9, 2021, by NYU Press

200 pages

What’s It About?

Using ten historical Supreme Court cases as precedents, The Fight for Freedom answers contemporary questions and addresses pervasive myths about free speech in the United States today. For example, what are libel laws and do they need to be changed? Can Saturday Night Live be punished for parody? Does Colin Kaepernick have the right to take a knee? These are a few of the many questions The Fight for Free Speech tackles as it strives to become an engaging handbook to free speech in America.

Why We Loved It

Looking for the right book to ease you into an easy understanding of free speech and its history in the United States? The Fight for Free Speech by Ian Rosenberg is the perfect introductory text! Rosenberg explores many historical and contemporary free speech Supreme Court cases but avoids the legal jargon and pedantic details. A short read, this book will keep you engaged as it uses the past to explain the present.