Shouting Fire: HBO's Documentary on Free Speech

An Arab-American educator loses her job after explaining a word with controversial overtones.  A high-school student is suspended for wearing a Bible-quoting T-shirt.  In the wake of a provocative essay about America’s involvement in 9/11, a college professor is fired after the university launches an investigation into his work.
Most Americans believe the First Amendment is sacred and inviolate, but not since the 1950s has it been under such attack – from both the right and the left.  In a unique collaboration with her father, noted First Amendment attorney Martin Garbus, Oscar nominee Liz Garbus explores the social and political trends that have shaped America’s attitudes about free speech and how they can threaten the very tenets upon which the country was built when the timely HBO documentary SHOUTING FIRE:  STORIES FROM THE EDGE OF FREE SPEECH, debuts MONDAY, JUNE 29 (9:00-10:15 p.m. ET/PT).

Offering a fascinating perspective on the evolution of the concept of free speech throughout the nation’s history, SHOUTING FIRE:  STORIES FROM THE EDGE OF FREE SPEECH examines the balancing act between protecting civil liberties and national security in a post-9/11 world, asking whether all speech is equally free.  Garbus’ primary tour guide in navigating this perilous landscape is her father, noted First Amendment attorney Martin Garbus, who applauds “the idea that you can have a country where anybody can think anything, say anything, create anything,” calling it “a miracle.”  The documentary looks into his own experiences as a First Amendment lawyer, including the Pentagon Papers case and his defense of a neo-Nazi group’s right to protest.

SHOUTING FIRE:  STORIES FROM THE EDGE OF FREE SPEECH examines the case of Ward Churchill, a tenured professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, who was fired after writing that U.S. foreign policy abuses were a partial cause of the 9/11 attacks.  Dismissed for research misconduct, Churchill later won a lawsuit against the university for unlawful termination of employment.

Liz Garbus also examines the story of Lebanese-American Debbie Almontaser, a veteran of the New York City public school system and founding principal of Khalil Gibran International Academy, the city’s first dual-language Arabic-English public school.  Almontaser claims she was forced to resign from her job in 2007 after she set off a firestorm by citing the literal definition of the word “Intifada” in an interview with the New York Post.  After she left, the Academy opened with a temporary principal who did not speak Arabic.  Alleging a witch hunt, Almontaser has filed a lawsuit claiming her First Amendment rights were violated.

The documentary also considers the case of Chase Harper, who was suspended from Poway High School in San Diego for wearing a T-shirt that read “Homosexuality Is Shameful” during a gay and lesbian awareness event.  Advocates for Poway High argue that they have the right to censor speech that would disrupt the educational experience of other students.

Finally, Garbus looks at Ruth Benn and Ed Hedemann, who were arrested and detained along with other protesters during a nonviolent demonstration at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City.  In the process of their defense, lawyers unearthed evidence that their organization and other peaceful groups had been subject to extensive surveillance by the NYC Police Dept.

Others interviewed in SHOUTING FIRE:  STORIES FROM THE EDGE OF FREE SPEECH include:  Floyd Abrams, a prominent First Amendment attorney who defended the New York Times, among others, in the Pentagon Papers case; David Horowitz, author of “The Professors:  The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America”; Eric Foner, a Columbia professor who is on Horowitz’s list, and the author of “The Story of American Freedom”; Donna Lieberman, executive director, New York Civil Liberties Union; Daniel Pipes, founder of the Middle East Forum; the Hon. Richard Posner, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge for the 7th Circuit and author of “The Constitution Is Not a Suicide Pact”; Kenneth Starr, First Amendment scholar and former special prosecutor during the Clinton presidency; and Josh Wolf, a client of Martin Garbus’ and a blogger and journalist who served six months in jail for refusing to turn over videotapes of a San Francisco protest.

Liz Garbus co-founded Moxie Firecracker, an independent documentary production company, with Rory Kennedy (one of SHOUTING FIRE’s producers) in 1998.  Garbus’ directorial credits include “The Farm:  Angola, USA,” which was nominated for an Oscar and won two Emmys and the Sundance Grand Jury Prize; “The Nazi Officer’s Wife”; and the HBO documentaries “The Execution of Wanda Jean” and “Xiara’s Song.”  In 2006, Garbus and Kennedy executive produced the Oscar-nominated “Street Fight”; their other HBO credits include “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib” (Emmy for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special) and “Coma.”  Garbus also produced two segments for HBO’s “The Addiction Project.”

SHOUTING FIRE:  STORIES FROM THE EDGE OF FREE SPEECH was directed and produced by Liz Garbus; produced by Rory Kennedy and Jed Rothstein; edited and co-produced by Karen K.H. Sim; cinematography by Tom Hurwitz.  For HBO:  senior producer, Nancy Abraham; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.