The Blues Brothers and the American Constitutional Protection of Hate Speech: Teaching the Meaning of the First Amendment to Foreign Audiences
Michigan State International Law Review, Vol. 21, No. 2, p. 451, 2013
18 Pages Posted: 18 Sep 2013
Date Written: September 17, 2013
Skokie, Illinois, 1978. A retired black and white police car is stuck in traffic before a bridge where a political rally is being held by Nazis of the American Socialist White People’s Party. In the car, two men, wearing black suits, black hats, and black sunglasses, stand idle. The Nazis’ venomous leader delivers a racist and violence-mongering speech, which infuriates the onlookers. The Nazis are protected from the angry crowd of hecklers by a line of police. One of the men in black calmly states: “I hate Illinois Nazis,” as the other slams the gas pedal, charges the ranks of the brownshirts and stampedes them off the bridge into the water, to the cheers of the crowd. As they drive off, the soaked Nazi commander vows revenge. (THE BLUES BROTHERS (Universal Studios 1980). Long Synopsis).
This scene from the 1980 blockbuster comedy The Blues Brothers is a popular cultural expression of a uniquely-American legal provision: the constitutional protection of hate speech by virtue of the free speech clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The legal regime for hate speech in the United States has no equivalent anywhere in the world and is baffling to non-Americans. Europeans, in particular, whose countries served as the locus of Nazism’s horrors, tend to hold the U.S. constitutional protection of hate speech in disbelief, before shaking their heads in contempt and concluding something along the lines of “those crazy Americans.” This protection of hate speech, however, makes a lot of sense in the American context. In this paper, I argue that the aforementioned scene from The Blues Brothers has great potential to elucidate the meaning of the constitutional protection of hate speech, and, more broadly, of the First Amendment, for a non-American audience. I propose that the scene be used by comparative jurists teaching the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. I focus the comparison between the United States and France, for “France and the United States start from such different assumptions regarding freedom of speech and the relationship between speech and other rights that it is virtually impossible to reconcile their competing approaches,” a situation that creates deep cultural misunderstandings, which in turn can be reconciled using this case study. France is also relevant because it is one of the countries that has taken the most aggressive stance against American companies in the context of Nazi speech distributed globally over the Internet, which has resulted, in particular, in Yahoo!, Inc. and its executives being criminally prosecuted in France for violation of anti-hate speech laws. Fostering mutual understanding between the U.S. and France is therefore particularly important in this age of global digital information distribution.
In Part I, I first theoretically ground the argument that consumption of cultural artifacts is a prerequisite to understanding the law of a country, and beyond it, the country’s people and society themselves (I). Part II involves a detailed case study of the aforementioned scene from The Blues Brothers as such an artifact, in order to lift the veil on the cultural signified hidden beyond the legal signifier that is the First Amendment, and foster mutual understanding between the people of the United States and other peoples (II). I conclude that the Blues Brothers’ Nazi scene should be used by comparative jurists teaching the meaning of the First Amendment to foreign audiences, as an aid to shine a light on the cultural, social, and political principles that ground the constitutional protection of hate speech in the United States.
Keywords: First Amendment, US Constitution, Constitutional Law, Comparative Law, Hate Speech, Nazi Speech, Blues Brothers, John Landis, France, United States, Civil Rights, Civil Liberties, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of the Press, Press Law, Press Freedom
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