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TV Review: Shouting Fire – Stories From the Edge of Free Speech

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The HBO documentary Shouting Fire: Stories From the Edge of Free Speech, directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus, aired on June 29 and is scheduled to broadcast throughout July. Garbus chronicles four main stories while highlighting the era of McCarthyism as well as other pivotal times in our nation’s history when the First Amendment was put to the test and articulates that since 9/11, it is under attack again.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Garbus’ focal point is her ongoing interview with and commentary by her father, “legendary” attorney Martin Garbus. Interwoven are commentaries from David Horowitz (American conservative writer and activist), Daniel Pipes (commentary and analysis on radical Islam and the Middle East), Kenneth Starr (former U.S. Solicitor General who led the inquiry into President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica L. Lewinsky), Joan Wallach Scott (professor and consultant to the American Association of University Professors), Leslie Cagan (co-founder of United for Peace and Justice and a leader in the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism), and others, each articulating their views on particular cases in support of the First Amendment.

Garbus' cases are intriguing; however, the documentary seems more concerned that “academic freedom is under attack today” than it is concerned with freedom of speech in general. It has a very political overtone, takes a leftward lean, lacks detail in some of the stories, and seems to be complimentary instead of confrontational toward its edgy examples.

Shouting Fire starts with the case of Ward Churchill, tenured professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, who was fired for research misconduct in July of 2007. In April of 2009, a jury found that the he was wrongfully dismissed. Churchill became a nationally known figure due to an essay purportedly written on September 12, 2001, the day after terrorists attacked the World Trade Center (the "9/11 essay"). Churchill’s essay and recorded lectures characterized the 9/11 terrorist attacks as an instance of "chickens coming home to roost," and vilifying the victims who had died in the World Trade Center as "little Eichmanns.”

Garbus then highlights the 2007 story of an Arab-American educator in New York, Debbie Almontaser, who lost her position as principal after remarks she made following 9/11 were distorted. Almontaser was forced to resign her position as principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy in New York City (designed to offer classes in Arabic and English, modeled on other dual-language city schools and reported to have no religious component) when the school was subject to a campaign by the “Stop the Madrassa Coalition,” labeling the school as a facility for terrorists. Almontaser was also the focus of The New York Post, which reported on her ties to Islam and her connection to a group called "Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media" which was selling T-shirts that glorify Palestinian terror. When Almontaser was interviewed by The New York Post she downplayed the significance of the T-shirts and stated, "the word 'intifada' basically means 'shaking off'––that is the root word if you look it up in Arabic."

Garbus throws in the 2004 case of Tyler Chase Harper, a sophomore at Poway High School, an upstanding student and athlete who had never been in trouble at school before when he was suspended for wearing a non-violent yet controversial T-shirt to school in response to the Poway High School’s LGBT Day of Silence. Harper, a Christian, decided to exercise his free speech on a T-shirt that referenced a verse from the Bible, Romans 1:27, “be ashamed, our school has embraced what God has condemned,” and “homosexuality is shameful.” The school concluded that Harper's T-shirt was disruptive and offensive to other students. Harper was told that he couldn't exercise his free speech this way and the principal informed him “if your faith is offensive you have to leave it in the car.”

Lastly, Garbus' focus shifts to the 2004 peaceful protest in New York City where protesters marched past Madison Square Garden, the site of the Republican National Convention, to show their disapproval of President George W. Bush. Security forces were deployed to match the estimated crowd of 500,000 and the event went off without major violence but approximately 200 arrests were made (mostly outside the march zone) on charges of disorderly conduct, while some arrests were made for felony assaults on officers and there was a group arrested after they knocked down police barriers and hurled bottles at police lines. The largest group of arrests came at 34th Street and Seventh Avenue when 53 cyclists were cuffed for entering the "frozen zone."

Shouting Fire was is well done, thought-provoking, and it does come to some profound conclusions; free speech is not “free” but is worth fighting for, is critical to a democracy, and 9/11 has impacted the civil liberties of all Americans. However, this documentary leaves more penetrating questions than it answers (at least debates), surrounding one of our greatest, yet most complex, constitutional rights.

Should universities and students be forced to put up with professors who use their free speech (usually full of leftist hyperbole and hateful rhetoric) to coerce or intimidate students toward their political agenda? Should this be part of any curriculum at all?

Should the media and journalists (or anybody else for that matter) be allowed to falsely accuse, libel, slander, and spew out bullshit just to assassinate someone’s character? On the other hand are the media and journalists allowed to expose and report the truth even if it’s not popular and/or may hurt someone?

Why is it that we can no longer pray in school but we can have a national day of silence for the LGBT community? Where is the equality in that? Should schools be able to ban offensive speech even if it's not violent? How do we define offensive? How do we define hate speech? I have socks that say “dopers suck” – is that offensive? What about all of the pornographic T-shirts?

Do we do have the right to a peaceable assembly even if that means dissent? Yes, in fact, it is American to speak out when we think our government is doing something wrong, because it is “we the people” who make up this nation, and it is through our speaking out that we can sustain what is good about America, change what is bad and fulfill the vision of our forefathers –- “to form a more perfect Union.”

Should we be surprised or even complain when our law enforcement responds to our "protest" in order to ensure our assembly remains peaceful? As long as they don't respond like the recent events in Iran with extreme brutality, improper use of force, and unwarranted arrests.

How do we balance civil liberties and national security? If we shout “fire” in a theatre when there is none, do others have a right to criticize, condemn, or censure? In the words of Collin Powell, "Free speech is intended to protect the controversial and even outrageous word and not just comforting platitudes too mundane to need protection."

This Independence Day 2009, let’s commemorate the fact that our First Amendment is for all Americans – left and right, Democrat and Republican, religious and atheist, gay and straight, teacher and student, as well as politician and citizen. We are all entitled to our own opinions and beliefs (while being exposed to and having to tolerate opposing ones) and are free to boldly express them — hopefully tempered with prudence and coupled with some level of responsibility (and at times exercising our “right to remain silent”), which all of our freedoms deserve.

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About Christine Lakatos