Karen E. Whedbee on “Reverend Billy Goes to Main Street: Free Speech, Trespassing, and Activist Documentary Film”

Karen E. Whedbee is an associate professor in the media studies program in the Department of Communication at Northern Illinois University. She has published widely on topics related to free speech, communication ethics, and the history of participatory democracy. Among her recent works is “Preservation, Restoration, and Accessibility of Popular Culture Materials” in A Companion to Popular Culture (ed. Gary Burns, Wiley Blackwell, 2016). She recently shared her thoughts on her article, “Reverend Billy Goes to Main Street: Free Speech, Trespassing, and Activist Documentary Film” from the Journal of Film and Video.

On a daily basis, many of us find ourselves struggling to negotiate the boundary between private and public space. Digital technology has made audiovisual recording of personal interactions ubiquitous. Social media has made the distribution of these recordings instantaneous. Thus, the danger of violating privacy can be serious. But what is at issue in the twenty-first century is not just a matter of personal privacy and individual property rights. Matters that are of genuine public interest and concern are equally endangered, as they have frequently been relocated onto private property. The “No Trespassing” sign can be used by powerful government officials and corporate interests as a kind of non-governmental censorship that silences legitimate public argument and limits public accountability in the marketplace of ideas.

As a university professor, I teach students who aspire to work as public advocates, filmmakers, journalists, and social media marketing specialists. It should come as no surprise that we spend many classes exploring the tensions between privacy and publicity. Over the years, I’ve collected many case studies that illustrate the kinds of problems that media professionals are likely to face.

For example, the springboard for this article is What Would Jesus Buy? In this 2007 documentary, director Rob Van Alkemade and his crew followed Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir on a road trip from New York City to California. Along the journey, the reverend provides a master class in political activism and the art of trespass. I supplement the insights provided by Reverend Billy with an examination of several other documentary films including Josh Fox’s Gasland, Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc., and Elizabeth Barrett’s Stranger with a Camera. These classic documentaries help to clarify the legal and ethical hazards that face media professionals who have found themselves straddling the boundary between private and public space.

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