HBO's Shouting Fire Is More Congratulatory Than Analytical on Free Speech Issues

The documentary is more congratulatory on free speech than on analytical. Too bad.

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Despite frequent admonitions from our political leaders to do so, it sure is proving hard to move past the last eight years. Add to the retrospectives Oscar-nominated director Liz Garbus' Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech, which debuts today on HBO. Through accounts of flashpoints since 9/11 about the freedoms Americans enjoy under the First Amendment, the documentary film is intended as a sobering check-in on what's happening on the ragged edge of free-speech debates.

Garbus chronicles University of Colorado Prof. Ward Churchill's dismissal in the wake of his inflammatory comments about the 9/11 attacks, Debbie Almontaser's removal as principal of the Khalil Gibran Arabic-English dual language school in New York City, Chase Harper, whose anti-homosexual T-shirt ignited a firestorm at his high school, and the protesters at the 2004 Republican Convention in New York City. The film also weaves in key First Amendment history from President Adams, Sen. Joe McCarthy, and the debate over the planned Nazi rally in Skokie, Ill., to the publishing of the Pentagon Papers.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Shouting Fire is personal. Garbus involves her father, trial attorney and First Amendment expert Martin Garbus, in a running commentary on the issues the film raises. Martin Garbus, whose personal history on the issue helped make him political, is an articulate and convincing advocate for a staunch First Amendment viewpoint. His engaging personality and low-key but passionate approach make the film.

Less interesting is the portrayal of the various contemporaneous cases. The episodes are intriguing, as these cases generally are. But if you begin to watch Shouting Fire thinking Republicans haven't acquitted themselves well on civil liberties and free speech during this decade, you'll likely finish thinking the same. The film is more congratulatory than analytical.

In fact, the conservatives Liz Garbus rounds up to discuss the issues seem an almost deliberately unappetizing lot. Activists David Horowitz and Daniel Pipes, stars of the Churchill and Almontaser controversies, are zealots and do not acquit themselves well in the film. The most reasonable voice is that of Ken Starr—he of Clinton impeachment fame. Couldn't Garbus have found an articulate advocate who doesn't immediately spark a visceral and negative reaction from almost anyone left of center? In a similar vein, during a discussion of academic free speech rights, the film pointedly highlights the association of former second lady Lynne Cheney and Sen. Joe Lieberman with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (signaling sinister motives, natch) but provides viewers relatively little information to make a judgment about the group. So much for informed debate underpinning free speech.

This angle is unfortunate because the issues Shouting Fire raises are vital ones. As the film notes, in times of war or great fear, Americans are more willing to erode civil liberties. "Red scares" and internments are obvious high-profile examples, but the period since 9/11 provides more recent if less sensational illustrations. That's a pattern that requires vigilance. Yet the film fails to fully engage with the complicated balancing act of civil liberties and national security, which seems almost certain to continue as a national conversation for some time. Similarly, the account of the protesters at the 2004 Republican Convention only scratches the surface of emerging questions about new electronic surveillance methods and privacy.

At the same time, Shouting Fire leaves complicated elements of these stories unexplored. The Debbie Almontaser incident, for example, is much less a First Amendment or free speech issue per se than a case of media and activists run amok. Almontaser was the victim of reckless and sensational media coverage, interest groups that need controversies to survive, and her own lack of press savvy and poor judgment amid the media storm. That brew, rather than any governmental action, created the circumstances that caused public officials and education leaders in New York to abandon her and forced her resignation. Unfair? Of course. But not uncommon, and given the new mediums of technology and communication today and the burgeoning online marketplace of ideas, issues of nongovernmental suppression and distortion of speech are ripe for examination. Ward Churchill's theatrics, for instance, largely escaped public attention until their excavation by cable news shows.


Corrected on : Andrew J. Rotherham is cofounder and publisher of Education Sector. He blogs at Eduwonk.com.