Free Speech Documentary Maker Eyes Sotomayor Decision

The maker of a new documentary admires Sotomayor's opinion on the distribution of racist leaflets.

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By Maura Judkis, Washington Whispers

Documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus likes to say that her devotion to the First Amendment was instilled in utero—a declaration that, from anyone else, would be considered hyperbole. But freedom of speech, press, religion, petition, and assembly course through her veins because her father is Martin Garbus, a prominent First Amendment lawyer. He is famous for defending raunchy comedian Lenny Bruce against obscenity charges, helping to get the Pentagon Papers published, and fighting for the right of the Nazi Party to march in Skokie, Ill., despite being raised Jewish himself.

"As a filmmaker, what I do is part of free speech," Liz Garbus told Whispers. "I always wanted to do something about the interesting worlds that I was able to see through my father's work."

Her film "Shouting Fire: Stories From the Edge of Free Speech" (which takes its name from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.'s dictum that falsely shouting "Fire" in a crowded theater would not be constitutionally protected speech) examines First Amendment cases from a post-9/11, post-Patriot Act world that fall in murky territory, like the firing of a Muslim public school teacher or the arrest of hundreds of peaceful protestors at the 2004 Republican National Convention. It was recently screened in D.C.'s Pantheon of free speech: The Newseum, a building that has the five First Amendment freedoms emblazoned in huge lettering on the side of the building.

Garbus's approach throughout the documentary is even-handed. Though she says that the Patriot Act made the exercise of freedom of speech more difficult for people from the left after 9/11, her vignettes encompass the full political spectrum, including a high school student, Chase Harper, who was removed from public school for wearing a T-shirt that said "Homosexuality is Shameful."

"My devotion to free speech at this point is pretty nonpartisan," says Garbus. "You have to defend things that you really, really hate if you mean it about free speech."

That's one of the reason she's closely following the news about the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. "She made a very courageous dissenting opinion in a free speech case, where she wrote in support of a New York City police officer who was distributing racist leaflets," says Garbus. "She protected the free speech rights of someone whose views were abhorrent, and I find that very brave. So I'm interested in how that will play out."

Indeed, the timing of her documentary's release—it will be aired on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern Time on June 29—could not have been better. Several other First Amendment issues have been in the headlines in recent weeks, from President Obama's decision not to release detainee torture photographs to the killing of an abortion provider and the shooting at the Holocaust Museum. The suspects in both of the latter cases were men who had expressed hateful views in online forums prior to the incidents.

"These violent acts are disturbing and horrible, but they're not free speech issues, they're violent crimes," says Garbus, who expressed frustration with journalists who wrote columns stating that hateful speech from the right-wing media was responsible in part for the incidents. Glenn Beck "has a right to his opinion," she says. "Our responsibility, if you don't agree with him, is to get your voice out there. I found it disturbing that there was this cacophony of voices that seemed to be blaming the right-wing media for violent crimes."

As for Obama and the torture photos, Garbus's father compared the situation to the Pentagon Papers in a panel discussion after a screening of the film. The president made the wrong call, the elder Garbus said. "The best thing is to release them. I don't think any of the quote 'American enemies' right now are going to be surprised by anything that's in there," he said. "I think it's a terrible mistake. It's the concept of whether you have an abstract commitment to the First Amendment or you actually believe it means something."