Some of the First Amendment's many faces will be on display tonight on HBO (at 9 p.m., repeated through the week) in a must-see documentary that also features noted First Amendment lawyer Martin Garbus, partner at the New York firm Eaton & Van Winkle. It's called Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech, and is directed and produced by his daughter Liz Garbus.
It's a dynamic look at the history of free speech in the last century, including the McCarthy era, Vietnam protests, and post-9/11 paranoia. But that history is interspersed with in-depth portraits of three controversial speakers of recent years: Ward Churchill, who was drummed out of his job as a professor at University of Colorado-Boulder after suggesting that the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center was not a senseless act; Debbie Almontaser, forced to resign as principal of a New York City school after the New York Post twisted remarks she had made about the meaning of "intifada"; and California high school student Chase Harper, who was suspended for wearing a t-shirt with the message, "Homosexuality is shameful."
The portraits were sympathetic but thought-provoking. During a panel discussion following a preview of the documentary at the Newseum earlier this month, Paul Smith of Jenner & Block offered an alternate view of the Chase Harper episode as possibly part of a hostile environment for gay students. An audience member also noted that in the Almontaser case, the New York Post was a First Amendment actor too.
The father-daughter connection makes for an interesting dynamic, seen in intermittent commentary by the elder Garbus during the documentary. The fearless Martin Garbus, who has represented the likes of Lenny Bruce, Daniel Ellsberg, and Don Imus, mellows in front of a camera wielded by his daughter.
When she asks him why Almontaser, the banished New York City principal, can't sue the New York Post for libel for its misleading stories that led her to resign, Garbus says he looked into it and found Almontaser had no legal remedy, given the strong protections afforded the news media. "Is that OK?" she asks incredulously. With resignation, the father says, "Under the law, it's OK."
In a final poignant moment, Liz Garbus asks her father on camera what lessons about freedom of speech he wanted to teach her as a child. "If you don't fight for it every day, you're going to lose it," Garbus said without hesitation. "And don't let the fucking guys win."