Friday, July 3, 2009

Timely, Masterful HBO Documentary about The First Amendment

Just in time for July 4, HBO debuted its First Amendment documentary, "Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech," this past Monday. Its perspective - that the First Amendment has not been under such fire since the 1950s - is something that anyone who cares about the First Amendment can't help but agree with. The documentary features First Amendment lawyer Martin Garbus, and was made by his daughter Liz Garbus. She's already won two Emmys. Her work on this documentary should win her another and more.

Martin Garbus has been an heroic champion of the First Amendment - I quote him about the need for shield laws for blogger journalists in New New Media - and in this documentary, he is the main guide through recent attacks on our freedoms of expression guaranteed in the Constitution.

The key is that in order for the First Amendment to protect speech we value, we must support its protection of speech we may loathe. Communication that everyone including the government likes needs no protection from government censorship and punishment. "Shouting Fire" thus includes the battles of Ward Churchill, a professor who disparaged some of the victims of 9/11 as "little Eichmanns", and Chase Harper, a student who wore a tee-shirt in his high school that said "homosexuality is shameful".

You may disagree strongly with both points of view - I certainly do - but allowing them to be silenced, or punishing the people who espouse them, is destructive to the very basis of our democracy, or, as Martin Garbus aptly puts it, "a country where anybody can think anything, say anything, create anything." Technically, neither Churchill nor Harper was punished by the government, but Churchill (a tenured professor) was fired (on grounds that he plagiarized some of his credentials) and Harper was suspended.

Churchill's reinstatement is currently under consideration, after a jury found that he had been wrongly fired. But others whose First Amendment rights were trampled, as they tried to communicate ideas a lot more welcome than Churchill's or Harper's, have not yet been as fortunate. "Shouting Fire" tells the story of Debbie Almontaser, who was dismissed as principal of the first dual-language Arabic-English public school she was founding, after cowardly NYC officials caved to right-wing pressure. Her case is currently in the courts.

Liz Garbus's documentary - masterfully produced, with clips from movies and real-life interviews interspersed with keen analysis - concludes with a note on the importance of the Supreme Court, and the danger the First Amendment faces from the current court, which could be under the baneful influence of Bush appointees for decades.

No mention is made of Obama's first appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, because the documentary was no doubt already finished when Obama announced the appointment in May. But given the ruling of the Sotomayor Appellate court in the 2008 Doninger case, which upheld a high school's punishment of a 16-year old for objectionable language she wrote on her off-campus blog, the release of "Shouting Fire" is well timed.

I recommend this documentary to everyone who bears witness to our freedoms.

See also June 2009 Interview with Avery and Lauren Doninger and 2005 The Flouting of the First Amendment.
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