Joint 'Project’: A Civics Lesson That Entertains


When the forefathers of this nation wrote the First Amendment, they undoubtedly meant to guarantee every citizen the right to certain actions without penalty: gathering peacefully, criticizing the government and saying those three little words: “fair and balanced.”

Knowing one look at Al Franken’s last book cover would have made George Washington shed a tear, Sundance Channel and Court TV paired up for The First Amendment Project.

A four-part series of half-hour films, Project is the work of five directors who each grabbed slices of American society and revealed them through the eyepiece of the First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly.

The first film, Fox v. Franken (directed by Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob, The War Room) recounts Fox News Channel’s lawsuit against comedian-turned-author/radio host Franken for trademark infringement and placement of a photo of anchor/host Bill O’Reilly on the cover of his book.

Once the heaping serving of political comic relief wears off, Judge Denny Chin recounts that after he ruled against the network, O’Reilly ran a segment that portrayed him as being sympathetic to child sex offenders. As if O’Reilly were saying, “It’s my First Amendment, too.” Well, he’s right.

Fox News passed on the opportunity to participate in the film.

The springboard for Poetic License, directed by Mario Van Peebles (Baadasssss!) is the public outrage over the post-9/11 poem “Somebody Blew Up America” by Amiri Baraka. True to his provocative style, Van Peebles presents a piece with as much attitude as a squad of high school cheerleaders.

A line in Baraka’s poem sparked accusations of anti-Semitism and prompted former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey to call for an apology and resignation. Baraka was New Jersey’s third — and final — poet laureate. Had the state done its homework, the governor would have known to expect a July snowfall in Newark before he heard an apology from Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones. Opinions expressed range from accusing the state of ignoring the poet’s opinions and style before appointing him, to the possibility that McGreevey’s emotional involvement with an Israeli citizen (which led to his resignation) may have affected his decision to abolish the position.

The project’s examinations of examples of First Amendment freedoms and violations are humorous, straightforward and even offensive, but never boring. Additional segments include No Joking by Bob Balaban (Strangers With Candy), and Some Assembly Required by John Walter (How to Draw a Bunny).

The First Amendment Project premieres Dec. 7 at 9:00 p.m. ET on Sundance Channel and 10:00 p.m. on Court TV.