The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, is a book that changed the way I viewed the world.
First Monday in October (1981) is a movie that shaped, if not my view of the world, at least my position on all issues surrounding Freedom of Speech.
Apparently, it isn’t a very good movie. The Rotten Tomatoes Audience Score for First Monday in October is 46% (there is no Critics Consensus).
I don’t remember if Walter Matthau was brilliant as Supreme Court Justice Daniel Snow. Nor do I if Jill Clayburn was any good at her portrayal of the presidential appointee to the Supreme court.
I just remember one scene.
And it has stuck with me for almost 40 years. And, given the way the world has changed in the last few years, I think about it almost daily.
It was a single conversation that makes this movie memorable for me.
But here is what I remember:
The Supreme Court needs to decide what the law says about an obscene movie. Liberal Justice Daniel Snow (Matthau) refuses to go to a screening of the movie. He says it is immaterial to how he intends to vote. Newly appointed, conservative, justice Ruth Loomis (Clayburn), insists that Snow must watch the film in order to decide if it ought to be protected under the tenets of Freedom of Speech.
Snow knows how he will vote regardless of how bad the content is–he will not limit Freedom of Speech.
Going into the film, I think my view would have been similar to that of Loomis; I came out agreeing with Snow. And I still do. I think Freedom of Speech is foundational to our culture. If pornographers are free to express their material, then I am allowed to express my opinions too.
It’s another world today. The roles seem to have been reversed. It’s not just conservatives who want to limit free speech. People on the extreme liberal end of the spectrum seem to be quite willing to silence the speech of any who disagree with them–even fellow liberal extremists who express a different flavour of liberal extremism. And it feels as if the willingness to suppress, not just voice, but thought itself is moving in from the extreme.
Interestingly, conservative are now joining moderate liberals in the defense of free speech, but this support seems to be quite selective.
What disturbs me is that dialogue is being stifled–quite unapologetically.
I don’t know if we will ever go back to having conversations and arguments about what we believe, all the while allowing that the other has the right to say what they will. I hope so.