Journalists get passionate about the First Amendment, mainly because it helps shield the press against those who attempt to silence it.
Because such attacks are becoming more frequent, thanks in large part to the Bush administration, most news coverage of the First Amendment revolves around the media.
But the First Amendment doesn’t just protect the media; it protects freedom of expression for all Americans. We’re reminded of this by the late actress Katharine Hepburn, who stood up for artistic freedom against theater producers in Los Angeles.
The incident came to light when papers from Hepburn’s theater career were donated recently to the New York Public Library.
According to a story carried by The Associated Press, one packet of correspondence from 1971 concerned Hepburn’s use of a four-letter word in “Coco,” a play based on the life of designer Coco Chanel. Her latest collection having bombed, the character utters the profanity.
With the play headed to Los Angeles, Hepburn was contractually forbidden from using the expletive. Her letter begging to have it reinstated is an eloquent plea for free expression.
“First we have tried everything that anyone can think of to use instead,” she wrote. “Nothing works — the sadness — the finality — the clarity and the brevity of this expression coming from the lips of a highly respectable old lady — who is alone — and who is in tears over the total failure of her show — strikes the audience as funny then as she runs up the stairway — curiously gallant.”
Hepburn got her way. Edwin Lester of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Association responded that the letter “was sufficient for us to acquiesce, particularly if acquiescence would make you happy.” He added, “Again let me tell you how much we are looking forward to your visit with us, even though you bring that naughty word along with you.”
Now, some might doubt that “naughty” words deserve First Amendment protection, but there is no doubt that Hepburn stood her ground because she thought it important to do so.
Artists and performers, too, come under fire for challenging the status quo or for putting society’s dirty laundry on display. Robert Mapplethorpe’s sexually explicit photographs and comedian George Carlin’s “seven dirty words” routine provide two famous examples, but there are also lesser-known figures like modern dance pioneer Bella Lewitzki.
When the National Endowment for the Arts began requiring grant recipients to sign an anti-obscenity pledge, a knee-jerk reaction to the Mapplethorpe controversy, it was Lewitzki’s lawsuit that prompted a judge to rule the NEA pledge unconstitutional.
All this serves as a potent reminder that the Constitution is not a dusty manuscript to be ignored. Americans are free to say what they want, even if what they say is unpopular or offensive. Katharine Hepburn stood up for that principle; we all should do no less.