Johnny Sneed on Confident Pluralism

Those who know me know that I am a big fan of Parks and Recreation, which also frames a chapter of Confident Pluralism. I’m therefore pleased to share this guest post from Johnny Sneed:

A lawyer-turned-actor, I played the recurring role of William Barnes on NBC’s Parks and Recreation. While shooting the show, the cast and crew worked hard to mine seemingly mundane moments for comedy and try to “make the day” (in production parlance). But given the pace of production—and Nick Offerman’s majestic mustache—one could be forgiven if the Constitution and First Amendment were not on the forefront of our minds. So I read with great interest the chapter in John Inazu’s book, Confident Pluralism addressing the constitutional dimensions of Parks and Recreation.


Johnny Sneed as William Barnes

Inazu’s chapter on the public forum compliments Parks and Recreation and connects the show to First Amendment legal analysis and the free speech issues of our day. He notes, “the public forum in practice is quite unrecognizable from its ideal, and that departure should give us great pause.” The sometimes comical and sometimes tragic gulf between ideals and reality may be the essence of the humor that the show’s creators had in mind, and something of which we are all to some extent aware. Inazu lauds the attention Parks and Recreation gives to the public forum, and he reminds us of the societal importance and constitutional underpinnings of these government-provided spaces. While specific examples from Parks and Recreation may seem insignificant or comically absurd, the public forum is essential for a pluralist, democratic society. If a television show can have fun toying with that notion, so much the better.

That is not to say that our expression knows no bounds. My first day on the set of Parks and Recreation, my nerves were jittery, and I was eager to impress in my initial scene with Amy Poehler. On the first take, I improvised a line or two at the end of the scene. Ms. Poehler stared blankly for a moment before asking me—very politely—not to do that again.  I was reminded, as Inazu notes in his book, that words freely spoken always have their limits.

Johnny Sneed is a graduate of the University of Mississippi School of Law. In addition to his role in Parks and Recreation, he has appeared in television and movies including Trumbo and Love and Mercy.