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.    

March 2023
Jackson, 1964

By Calvin Trillin

Published 2016

275 pages

What’s it about?

Jackson, 1964 is a collection of essays written by New Yorker staff member Calvin Trillin. From the 1960s to the 1980s, Trillin wrote countless stories about race for the magazine. Jackson, 1964 is a collection of his best work. Trillin covers everything from National Guard units patrolling Black neighborhoods in Delaware in 1968 to the story of a woman trying to legally change the racial classification on her government passport in Louisiana in 1986. This book offers a lot of variety and an eclectic mix of stories, all centered around the theme of race in the United States. 

Why we loved it

The humanity of Jackson, 1964 is what makes the book stand out. It is the story of everyday individuals caught in the often bizarre and sad milieu of race in the US. It is not a grand sweeping history of race or the Civil Rights Movement but an assortment of human moments. One of the more touching examples is the vignette of Martin Luther King, Jr. engaging in a conversation on civil rights with a white moderate on a plane. Another interesting example is the politicking on the administration level at Brigham Young University during the 1970s when the Mormon religion came under fire for what many saw as its racist theological doctrines. Moments such as these populate the text. It is the story of activists, everyday people, flawed individuals, policymakers, and more navigating moments when race intersects with culture, society, politics, and more.

February 2023

Directed By Sidney Lumet

Starring: Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, William Holden


121 minutes

What’s it about?

Upon learning that he is about to get laid off from a failing network news program due to declining ratings, Howard Beale, a TV anchor, decides to tell the unvarnished truth live on-air during his next broadcast. His bombastic expletive-filled rant turns out to be quite entertaining. It strikes a chord with the masses and increases the network’s ratings, resulting in Beale becoming an overnight sensation. However, the powers that be, including many that Beale initially railed against, realize his potential as a way to drive ratings and make big money. Throughout the rest of the film, Beale must contend with speaking his truth or becoming a pawn to big media interests.

Why we loved it

A populist, deeply cynical, and darkly comedic movie, Network’s resonance has stood the test of time. Its message will find many adherents today who will find it just as true now as many did in 1976. The film pokes at corporate media, the media’s obsession with sensationalism, and the supposedly shadowy business forces that shape popular narratives. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky remarked, “Television will do anything for a rating… anything!” and also characterized the television industry as “an indestructible and terrifying giant that is stronger than the government.” It is this thesis that guides Network. The movie has had a lasting cultural impact and has influenced the works of Spike Lee, Shaun Micallef, Cenk Uygur, and even “Weird Al” Yankovic, among others. Network is also an acclaimed film, having won four Academy Awards. In 1998, the American Film Institute ranked Network the 66th best film of all time.

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


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


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.