The renowned American-Italian filmmaker Martin Scorsese once said, “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” But it doesn’t take an accomplished director to appreciate how the minds, methods, and motivations of the people behind the camera shape the story we see on screen.
Filmmakers constantly make editorial decisions about the stories they show—including the shots they capture and the music they use to enhance our emotions. Every camera angle and color, the structure of scenes and the details of dialogue, all have a purpose and a meaning. And for most creative professionals, artistic output is incredibly personal.
But does the First Amendment allow filmmakers to choose what’s inside the frame and what’s out? Does it protect their liberty to choose when to speak and what to say—even when they operate a filmmaking business and are paid for their artistic services?
Well, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit has answered these questions with an emphatic “yes,” in Telescope Media Group v. Lucero. The court declared that “the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment covers films.” Even when “customers have some say over the finished product…, [filmmakers] retain ultimate editorial judgment and control” over the product. Additionally, the court said, “It also does not make any difference that the [filmmakers] are expressing their views through a for-profit enterprise.”
The filmmakers in this case are Carl and Angel Larsen, sole owners of Telescope Media Group, a St. Cloud-based video production company that “exists to tell great stories that honor God.” Carl and Angel specialize in creating commercials, short films, and live-event productions, and they even named and branded their company Telescope Media Group because they want their lives and their films to function like a telescope, magnifying Christ and telling beautiful and true stories that reflect their faith.
Because of their Christian beliefs, Carl and Angel gladly work with all people, regardless of their race, sexual orientation, sex, religious beliefs, or any other personal characteristic. Their faith also prompted them to adopt two little children from Ethiopia to join a loving, busy home with six other siblings.
Carl and Angel make a habit of welcoming strangers and new friends to join them around their 12-foot dinner table because of their faith as well. They invite first-time visitors to sign the underside of the table with a Sharpie—a wooden canvas that now displays more than 1,000 signatures of visitors from different political, cultural, religious, and ethnic backgrounds.
Because of their Christian faith, Carl and Angel also wish to expand their film business to include wedding videos—videos that promote a view of marriage as a “sacrificial covenant between one man and one woman.” But Minnesota has a different idea. The state, interpreting its own Human Rights Act, has argued that the Larsens would be required to produce films promoting conceptions of marriage that violate their beliefs, including same-sex marriage, if they produce films telling marriage stories that are consistent with those beliefs, or choose to stay out of the industry entirely.
But the 8th Circuit emphatically dismissed this logic. Minnesota can’t coerce Carl and Angel into betraying their convictions and promoting ideas or telling stories they find objectionable. In fact, as the U.S. Supreme Court stated last year in Janus v. AFSCE, “[f]orcing free and independent individuals to endorse ideas they find objectionable is always demeaning.”
The “safe course” would be for Carl and Angel to avoid the wedding industry altogether. But this kind of self-censorship is at odds with the First Amendment and makes our country a less diverse, less creative, and less free place. In the court’s words, “this type of compelled self-censorship, a byproduct of regulating speech based on its content, unquestionably ‘dampens the vigor and limits the variety of public debate.’”
The court’s decision is an enormous win for Carl and Angel and all creative professionals who share their beliefs about marriage. But it’s much bigger than that. Telescope is a win for anyone who cares about film and the value of artistic expression and editorial integrity. Most importantly, Telescope is a win for everyone who values the freedom to speak—or remain silent—based on personal convictions.