In recent months, nearly everyone has been talking about politics – including celebrities. When Mike Pence attended the popular musical Hamilton, the cast took the opportunity to applaud diversity and ask him to “uphold our American values.” Green Day directly blasted Donald Trump, the KKK, and fascism during their AMA performance last November. Meryl Streep used her Lifetime Achievement acceptance speech at last month’s Golden Globes to speak out in support of immigrants and free press. Lady Gaga has been both applauded and criticized for allegedly keeping her Super Bowl performance apolitical (that said, anyone who thinks she wasn’t making a statement by singing “Born This Way” to an audience including Mike Pence might want to take another look at the lyrics).
While some have expressed a desire for celebrities to “stick to [their] crafts” and others have questioned the value of “celebrity activism,” one thing is clear: whether or not you agree with their message, celebrities can and should be allowed to contribute to the conversation. However, to paraphrase Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, with great fame comes great responsibility. In this case, though, some of the responsibility lies on the audience. When individuals with outsized influence enter the political arena, it is important to know how to react.
First, it is important to remember that celebrities – like the rest of us – are protected by the First Amendment. Reaching a certain level of fame does not wash away your constitutional rights. However, as with any citizen, First Amendment protections only apply to government action: just because you are legally allowed to say something does not mean private actors cannot deliver rebuttals or repercussions. A&E was within its rights to suspend Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson after his anti-gay comments in 2013. The same provision that allows Colin Kaepernick to peacefully protest during the national anthem allows counter-protesters to burn his jersey. However futile it may be, people are free to #boycottHamilton to signal their disagreement with the cast’s message. While you cannot prevent a celebrity from speaking, you can express your displeasure and try to limit their platform.
When it comes to governmental interference or opposition, though, the Supreme Court has consistently protected freedom of speech, even in situations when the speech in question is controversial. This is not without exception: speech that incites violence or is illegally intimidating can still be prohibited. Milo Yiannopoulos, self-professed internet troll best known for leading a racist harassment campaign on Twitter against actress Leslie Jones, calling feminism “cancer,” and mocking a transgender student at the University of Wisconsin, regularly pushes the line between protected speech and harmful incitement. However, the ACLU has expressed support for Yiannopoulos in his free speech case, citing their “robust First Amendment positions” and the idea that the First Amendment should not be “reduced to a popularity contest.” Given this broad degree of protection, it is clear celebrities are legally permitted to participate in political speech.
The line becomes hazier when celebrities are promoting ideas or theories that are verifiably false. Rapper B.o.B. recently drew attention for claiming the Earth is flat and tweeting photos to “prove” it. He was quickly – and publicly – shot down by renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. More worrying are the celebrities, like Jenny McCarthy, who have popularized the anti-vaccine movement. The idea of a link between autism and vaccines traces back to a 1998 study by Andrew Wakefield, a gastroenterologist whose study has since been retracted and whose medical license has been revoked. However, anti-vaxxers have gained enough traction to cause actual harm as dangerous but preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough have started to make a comeback in the United States.
Other celebrities have used their disproportionate level of influence for good, becoming experts on a particular issue and using their fame to champion the cause. Leonardo DiCaprio is an outspoken advocate for environmental protection, and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation is involved in over seventy projects worldwide. Ashton Kutcher is the co-founder of Thorn, an NGO working to end the sexual exploitation of children through technology. Last Wednesday, Kutcher testified before of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a hearing about the “modern slavery” of sex trafficking.
Most celebrities, however, fall somewhere in the middle. Some explicitly set limits for themselves. Taylor Swift, for example, has been deliberately vague in her political positions, citing a level of influence disproportionate to her knowledge of the issues. Others dive passionately into the fray, unafraid to share their opinions with however wide an audience they can reach. It’s up to us, as that audience, to look into their positions and establish opinions of our own.
It makes sense for celebrities to talk about political issues. After all, celebrities – while more privileged than most – are still people, and these policies impact people. Why should immigrants, people of color, women, and LGBT individuals be told to stay silent on issues that directly affect them and their communities? Most celebrities were not born into fame; many still have friends and family members who do not enjoy the protective shield stardom can provide. Celebrities should not be chastised for using their privilege to lift up and amplify the voices of those who are less fortunate.
It is the responsibility of fans to decide what weight to give to such celebrity endorsements. When people blindly agree with the opinions of others, it’s a problem, whether that influential person is a friend, family member, or famous person. When celebrities speak on contentious issues, they should inspire their followers to learn about the policies or ideas for themselves. Political celebrity speech should be the beginning of the conversation, not the end.