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Looking Back to Prohibition to Understand the Unique American Story

Jim Leach, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, highlights an upcoming screening of the documentary "Prohibition" and a panel discussion with the filmmaker and experts on the Prohibition era.

Washington-area law students, experts on Constitutional law, and others will gather at the White House on Wednesday, February 22, for a screening of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary Prohibition and a panel discussion about the importance of Constitutional law. The screening is part of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ (NEH) “Bridging Cultures through Law” film series, which uses NEH-funded films to enrich legal education.

NEH is proud to have funded Prohibition, one of many exceptional explorations of unique American history from Burns and Novick. The film chronicles early Americans’ relationship with alcohol, the impetus behind the temperance movement, the passage of the 18th Amendment, the manifold legal issues during Prohibition, and its repeal with the 21st Amendment to the Constitution. This film transcends history by asking important questions about the function of the U.S. Constitution and the role American government plays in the lives of individual citizens. The three-part film premiered on PBS during the first week of October; the full film is now available on DVD and through iTunes download, with highlight clips available on PBS’ website and iPhone/iPad app.

The film screening will be followed by a panel discussion with filmmaker Lynn Novick, Federal Appeals Court Judge Andre Davis, author Dan Okrent (author of Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition), and George Washington Law School professor David Fontana. The discussion will be moderated by Caroline Fredrickson, the President of the American Constitution Society. The panelists will share their perspectives on the legal issues at play in Prohibition and engage the students in a discussion regarding Constitutional law. The panel discussion will be streamed live on Wednesday at 5 p.m. ET at

Just ten days ago, President Obama awarded the National Humanities Medal to world-renowned historians, scholars, thinkers, writers, and humanists.  In his speech he acknowledged that tomorrow’s leaders in the Arts and Humanities may just now be beginning the study of their future craft. In the audience tomorrow will be our nation’s future leaders in law, history and government—it is essential that they and their peers know the intricate history of our country. NEH strives to make accessible to the American public and the next generation of lawyers and leaders historical stories like Prohibition to help us understand the ways our society has been shaped by history.

Jim Leach is the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.