Freedom from government reprisal is key to educating, entertaining and changing society. Film and TV can entertain, educate and even change lives, says Motion Picture Association of America chairman Christopher Dodd, but only because it has been free to do so without fear of government reprisal.
According to an advance copy of his speech to the Media Institute in Washington Tuesday night—he was receiving its Freedom of Speech award—Dodd talked about his defense of free speech, both as a member of Congress (both representative and senator) and MPAA’s as a champion and beneficiary of the First Amendment, as well as the role of fear in limiting speech.
"What I discovered, however, was that while the principle and concept of free speech was universally supported in the abstract, that same support declined when confronted with fear," he said.
As a senator he introduced a bill, the Free Speech Protection Act, that would have created a federal shield to protect journalists from the threat of jail for not revealing confidential sources. But he said that "fear that the criminal and the corrupt" would benefit, trumped that needed protection.
He also pointed to his efforts as a senator to free a journalist detained and tortured as a spy by a society that feared free speech and "completely rejected" the right.
And then, in a reference that resonated in D.C., he talked of his work toward passage of the Daniel Pearl Free Speech Act, an effort to protect reporters worldwide not only from threats to their speech but threats to their safety. (Pearl, a former D.C. reporter for the Wall Street Journal, was beheaded while covering unrest in Pakistan.) That bill requires the State Department to report annually on press freedom worldwide as part of its review of the state of human rights.
Today, he said, he continues that passion for free speech at MPAA, where he takes pride in the entertainment industry's ability to tell truth to power, to challenge institutions, and criticize and question beliefs and authority. That can, and has, brought about change, he says. But only because "we have been free to tell unvarnished stories without fear of government reprisal or penalty."
We have all learned about slavery through textbooks, he said, but not without the visceral power of a Roots or 12 Years a Slave.
"No other nation on earth provides artists more freedom to express controversial – and sometimes even offensive – subjects," he said, pointing to MPAA's "long and proud tradition" of free speech, as both beneficiary and champion. "No lasting or consequential creative community can survive where its practitioners are not free to actually create and tell the stories they believe need to be told." He cited All the President's Men as one of those truth-to-power stories that might not get made or distributed in other places around the world.
The Freedom of Speech award is given annually by the Institute to "an individual who has shown noteworthy dedication to protecting and advancing freedom of speech and freedom of expression."