Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech
"I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." - Voltaire
Tonight at 9 p.m. (ET/PT) you should turn the channel to HBO to watch the television debut of Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech, a documentary about the evolution of freedom of speech in America. At eighty minutes, this film by Emmy Award-winning director Liz Garbus packs an intellectual and emotional punch that is sure to stimulate conversation amongst its viewers, whatever their political leanings. The daughter of civil rights lawyer Martin Garbus, Liz made this film in order to explore the many ways our most fundamental of rights is under attack in the United States.
Beginning with the post-9/11 "patriotic" crackdown on free speech, Garbus makes the case that America is now in an era of Neo-McCarthyism. She walks us through some of the prominent and lesser-known cases in US history, including the ACLU's defense of neo-Nazi protest rallies in Skokie, IL in 1977 and Ward Churchill's termination from the University of Colorado-Boulder thirty years later. The way Garbus sees it, "Free speech is free speech. And free speech means protecting even the ideas you hate"—a sentiment that is repeated often throughout the film.
I appreciated Garbus' attempt to live up to her own ideals, as public figures of many stripes are widely represented in Shouting Fire. Twenty-two interviewees—including former Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth Star, gender historian and academic Joan Wallach Scott, United for Peace and Justice co-founder Leslie Cagan, and conservative writer David Horowitz—grapple with challenging questions of where the line should be drawn between academic integrity and academic freedom, when speech becomes a tool of oppressive marginalization, and are limits on speech necessary?
Perhaps because I was working in the New York City public schools at the time, I was particularly moved by the story of Debbie Almontaser, the founding principal of Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA), an English-Arabic public school in Brooklyn, New York. KGIA is one of sixty-eight dual language schools intended to assist new immigrants with assimilating to their new home and foster an appreciation for the study of Arabic language and culture. Just one month before the school was slated to open, Almontaser was forced to resign as a result of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim fire that was sparked by Rightwing group Stop the Madrassa, fanned by Fox News, and finally made into an inferno by New York Post journalist Chuck Bennett, who took Almontaser's solicited explanation of the word intifada vastly out of context in order to write a sensationalistic story. The injustice done to Almontaser is devastating, though completely legal according to free speech laws.
From the Pentagon Papers to the Patriot Act, freedom of speech is a complicated issue. Shouting Fire makes a compelling case for why, as Martin Garbus says, if you value the right to speak freely, you must fight for it every day.