Stuart N. Brotman
If you’ve been to the movies this summer, you might notice longer queues, more expensive refreshments and more advertisements ahead of upcoming attractions. The data clearly explains this movie theater boom now that people are back in the habit of going to the movies after two long years of COVID-19 shutdown. Summer revenue was $1.96 billion through July 4, up nearly 200% from the same period in 2021, according to analytics firm Comscore.
Given the large numbers of Americans from all walks of life who are now gathered multiple times each day and night at their local movie theaters, perhaps there is an opportunity to create a better common understanding of the fundamental democratic principle that we all share – the First Amendment, which covers freedom of thought and religious practice; freedom of expression; freedom of press; freedom of assembly; and the freedom to petition governments about grievances.
Here, the data is much less encouraging. For example, a recent Knight Foundation survey found that less than half of high school teachers and students included in its national sample supported the idea that free speech should be supported when it is “offensive” or “threatening”. Notions about freedom of the press are only slightly higher – 57% said news organizations should be able to publish without government censorship. And for many months now we have watched with understandable horror as Russia’s Vladimir Putin cracks down on freedom of speech and the press, reminding us of the red line that is necessary to make democracy prevail over autocracy.
Seeing the 45 words of the First Amendment appear on screen before any upcoming commercial or attraction airs could be a great lesson in national citizenship for moviegoers of all ages. And to add a little spice, why not have Tom Cruise, Thor or even the Minions recite the First Amendment in a short movie clip right after the lights go out?
Bringing the First Amendment to theaters as part of the movie experience could also create a greater sense of unity in our highly polarized country, as it transcends political affiliation or leanings. That’s because the First Amendment serves Americans at large, and as such should be celebrated before every screening by everyone.
At a time when government bans on what can be read in classrooms seem to be reappearing, and as the safety of journalists is increasingly threatened, starting every film in a theater with the First Amendment would represent an affirmation powerful of our core constitutional values. It would also be an ongoing reminder that we can all enjoy the movies we’ve paid to see without fear of government censorship.
Brotman is the author of The First Amendment Lives On. He is Distinguished Professor of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.