Five Times Hollywood Defended Free Speech


Hollywood’s love affair with free speech ended some time after Donald Trump took the oath of office.

Slowly but surely the industry pulled back on the issue it once clung to like a statue on Oscar night. Industry players pled allegiance to the woke state, canceled problematic art (and each other), and demanded that a sitting president get bounced from social media.

Late night comics even chuckled as beloved authors like Dr. Seuss got the cultural boot.

It wasn’t always this way.

Hollywood once championed free speech on a variety of platforms. The industry understood the vital role speech plays in both the country at large and for their craft. Let’s look back at five times Hollywood embraced free speech and hope Tinsel Town comes to its senses and renews its love affair with free expression.

“The American President”

The 1995 rom com imagined a single U.S. leader falling in love with a lobbyist (Annette Bening). That novel twist combined with the impressive pairing of director Rob Reiner (“This Is Spinal Tap”) and writer Aaron Sorkin (“A Few Good Men”) earned raves from critics.

The film’s emotional finale used free speech as a cudgel against the protagonist’s political opponent.

“For the record, yes, I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU, but the more important question is “Why aren’t you, Bob?”

…America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.” 

Reiner and Sorkin were, and remain, two of Hollywood’s most outspoken liberals. Would they pool their talents for a message like that today? That’s rhetorical, since Reiner was one of many cheering President Donald Trump’s social media banishment.

Guess we won’t be seeing “The American President 2” anytime soon.

Neil Young’s 2006 “Freedom of Speech” Tour

It’s an understatement to say that veteran rocker Neil Young was no fan of President George W. Bush during the Iraq War days And he had plenty of A-list company. Young similarly rebelled against efforts to silence the president’s critics during a time of war.

Toward that end, Young rejoined David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash to promote free speech and reaffirm his right to protest as he saw fit.

“Those who feel the way we do had some hope and those who don’t feel the way we do were angry that the change happened. And those people have got a voice, and they have a reason for feeling the way they do. They strongly believe in the convictions. They believe in the military … they believe that we’re doing the right thing for the world, and they have every reason to be respected for their beliefs.”

Flash forward to 2022 and Young is leading an unsuccessful charge to silence Spotify superstar Joe Rogan for sharing pandemic information that didn’t mirror government-approved narratives.

Tim Robbins versus Dubya

Young wasn’t the only liberal rallying for free speech during that era. Actor Tim Robbins similarly protested Bush’s war efforts, a move that cost him an appearance at a “Bull Durham” reunion.

The 1988 baseball romance cast Robbins as “Nuke” LaLoosh, a flame-throwing pitcher struggling to get his mental approach in line with his talents. His anti-war comments, along with those of his co-star Susan Sarandon (Robbins’ partner at the time), convinced the Baseball Hall of Fame to disinvite the duo from its 15th anniversary celebration for the film.

Robbins teamed up with the ACLU, an organization which once stood proudly on behalf of free speech rights, to blast the decision. The move “reflects a disregard for the value of dissent in a free society. Indeed, you offer a vision of free speech that is deeply incompatible with the concept of ‘uninhibited, robust and wide open’ debate – a concept that is basic to our democracy.”

Comedy Post 9/11

Comedians played an important role in the days and weeks after the September 11 attacks. “Saturday Night Live” and “The Late Show with David Letterman” gently brought humor back into our lives after the shocking terrorist attacks. They made it acceptable to laugh again after so much heartache and pain.

Other comics didn’t tread so carefully. They pushed comedy conventions much harder, understanding that free speech doesn’t evaporate in times of extreme duress. Hollywood even made a documentary on the subject – “Too Soon: Comedy After 9/11.” Comedians from that era shared how they processed their grief and rage, and why they didn’t pull punches when it came to material intersecting with the tragedy.

They were right.

The extreme irony? Some of the comedians featured in the documentary are now part of the current cancel culture brigade (Marc Maron) or pretend cancel culture  doesn’t exist (Jon Stewart).

“The People vs. Larry Flynt”

The 1996 drama from legendary director Milos Forman celebrated the rise, fall, and legal victory of Hustler pornographer Larry Flynt.

The New York Times called it Forman’s “raucous hymn to the First Amendment.”

The movie, shown to acclaim at the New York Film Festival this fall and opening in theaters on Friday, has been critically embraced not only as an artistic tour de force but as a kind of democratic morality play.

Flynt was the perfect symbol for free speech. He was rude, crude and outrageous, and few would embrace his lifestyle choices. Yet defending speech one agrees with is always easy. Rushing to Flynt’s side, given his vulgar behavior, is another matter.

Christian Toto is an award-winning journalist, movie critic and editor of HollywoodInToto.com. He previously served as associate editor with Breitbart News’ Big Hollywood. Follow him at @HollywoodInToto

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire. 

Already have an account?

Got a tip worth investigating?

Your information could be the missing piece to an important story. Submit your tip today and make a difference.

Submit Tip
The Daily Wire   >  Read   >  Five Times Hollywood Defended Free Speech