While she delves into the life of a man whose work has been instrumental relative to landmark First Amendment legal decisions in her documentary Floyd Abrams: Speaking Freely--which debuts this evening (9/22) as an American Masters presentation on PBS--producer-director Yael Melamede harbors the hope that a prime takeaway for viewers will be something separate from the issues involved in these historic court cases. Melamede first and foremost would very much like to see people "have the experience of being very fond of someone with whom they might profoundly disagree.”
That “someone” is Abrams, a groundbreaking First Amendment lawyer and legal expert for 50-plus years. Melamede explained that her wish is grounded in the belief that society needs to depart from what has become the norm of dismissing and/or demonizing those with whom we are in disagreement. Rather her documentary makes the case for having a modicum of civility and being willing to hear the other side, a first step to effectively deal with issues no matter what they are.
Speaking Freely is part of PBS’ “Thought Leaders” series which examines the lives and legacies of political change-makers. Abrams represented The New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case, successfully arguing that the newspaper had the right to publish secret documents which shed light on the U.S. government’s involvement in the Vietnam War. By a 6 to 3 vote, the Supreme Court rejected the Nixon administration’s attempt to censor the publication, affirming the rights of a free press. The verdict upheld the decision made by NY federal district court Judge Murray Gurfein.
In a scene from Speaking Freely, Abrams reads Judge Gurfein’s ruling which in part states that “a cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority” due to “the right of the people to know.” Abrams said that these words were perhaps the best summation he’s heard of the justification for freedom of the press.
The Pentagon Papers case catapulted Abrams--and the concept of a First Amendment lawyer--to prominence in the legal world. He went on to take on assorted cases, reflecting his advocacy for and protection of free speech. Yet many of those who lauded him over the years turned critical of the attorney when he argued for Citizens United in 2010, which claimed that the Federal Election Commission (FEC) had overstepped its bounds. The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in Citizens United v. FEC which overruled an earlier decision, Austin v. Michigan State Chamber of Commerce (Austin), that allowed prohibitions on independent expenditures by corporations. The Court also overruled the part of McConnell v. FEC that held that corporations could be banned from making electioneering communications.
Just days after the Supreme Court ruled on Citizens United, President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address before Congress, with six Supreme Court justices seated in the front row. (An excerpt of this appears in Floyd Abrams: Speaking Freely.) Obama asserted that the Supreme Court decision “will open the floodgates for special interests--including foreign corporations--to spend without limit in our elections.”
Abrams, the darling of the free speech cause dating back to the Pentagon Papers, suddenly was perceived by a good number of his supporters as being party to undermining democracy in Citizens United. But Abrams remains steadfast to this day, convinced that the Citizens United verdict was correct--that even the most powerful have a right to free speech. Whether you agree with him or not, Abrams remains consistent as an advocate of free speech for all. Melamede shows in Speaking Freely that Abrams clearly isn’t living in a vacuum, that he is aware of and sees the pitfalls of corporate power and its abuses. He also is dismayed over hate speech and the intentional spreading of misinformation. But as dangerous as these abuses are, he contends that even more harmful would be to limit free speech. Melamede further noted that the attorney sees other possible remedies such as greater taxation of mega corporations, not allowing corporations to become too big and powerful, and perhaps discarding the cloak of anonymity for those entities and people spending big money in an attempt to exert influence over others.
Melamede first crossed paths with Abrams while researching Why We Hate, a six part documentary series (from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television and Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions) for which she served as an executive producer. Melamede felt a bond with Abrams, struck by his eloquence, talent, humility, and ability to understand both sides of an argument. She later approached Abrams about doing a series on free speech issues. That was distilled down to a project more manageable--Floyd Abrams: Speaking Freely--yet still potentially enlightening, what she described as “a biopic of the First Amendment through Floyd’s story.”
Still, there wasn’t enough time to include in the documentary everything Melamede would have liked relative to Abrams, including his travels overseas to get a better handle on human rights--or the lack thereof--elsewhere, and how his free speech pursuits are so anchored in his human rights activities. On a lesser but insightful note, Melamede would have also liked to include Abrams’ career wish had he not become a lawyer. Though Abrams clearly landed in a profession, said Melamede, which he was “meant to do,” the attorney shared that he could have really been a good kindergarten teacher. Melamede thought this alternate career aspiration reflects his passion for trying to explain, to put things into context and to teach, speaking volumes as to what Abrams is about and underscoring why she regards Speaking Freely as an important opportunity for people to admire someone they might disagree with at times. Speaking Freely also sheds light on Abrams’ family life. We hear from his kids and learn about his wife who's coping with dementia. The pioneering First Amendment lawyer has led a life that’s relatable to others and perhaps more relevant than ever given the political climate heading into 2024, an election year sorely in need a strong free press. He also has framed a case concerning a particular form of artificial intelligence (AI) in a free speech context. With the global climate crisis, political corruption, the promise and perils of new technology, and human rights issues, the Fourth Estate is faced with growing politicization of its work as varied interests attempt to silence or control journalism.
Floyd Abrams: Speaking Freely adds to a body of work for Melamede which includes a News and Documentary Emmy Award-winning turn as exec producer on the POV presentation of When I Walk, a documentary on a man’s life after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Melamede also produced Inocente, the short subject documentary Oscar winner in 2013, which was directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix.
Melamede is co-founder of SALTY Features through which she has directed and produced critically acclaimed and award-winning projects that explore moral complexities, ask important questions, and push people to look at the world through a new lens. She served as producer on the documentary Pay or Die that MTV Documentary Films and Paramount+ will release in theaters and stream this fall. The film takes a deep dive into the world of Type 1 diabetes, a disease that affects nearly 2 million Americans, many of whom are being held hostage by the pharmaceutical industry and cannot afford the insulin they need to survive. As the film follows families struggling to afford their medications, the inequities and social injustice of our healthcare system are brought to light.
And Melamede’s feature documentary Ada: My Mother the Architect will hit the festival circuit in 2024 as the filmmaker turns the camera towards renowned architect and recipient of the Israel Prize for architecture: Ada Karmi-Melamede. Yael Melamede, a former architect herself, set out to tell her mother’s unique story against the backdrop of Israel, and documents the prolific Israeli architect as she approaches the final chapter of her career, while also reflecting on her role as a mother.