By NEIL GENZLINGER
Published: June 28, 2009
It is presumably an accident of timing, but in the documentary “Shouting Fire,” boy, do the scenes of protesters being arrested during the 2004 Republican convention in New York call to mind recent images coming out of Iran.
That will only add to the film’s leftward lean, at least in the eyes of any conservative types who happen to tune in, making them more inclined to dismiss it. Too bad, because the film, Monday on HBO, explores First Amendment issues that everyone should give some dispassionate, platitude-free thought.
The film, by Liz Garbus, is subtitled “Stories From the Edge of Free Speech,” perhaps because the main characters in the cases she studies exercised their free-speech rights in a way that pushed some authority figure or other over the edge: a provocative college professor was fired, a high school boy was told to stop wearing a particular T-shirt and so on.
Ms. Garbus’s premise is that the guarantees of the First Amendment have been under siege since 9/11. Wars, the film notes, have always made the government skittish. She begins with the case of Ward Churchill, a University of Colorado professor who found himself facing an inquiry after his strong remarks that the United States brought the Sept. 11 attacks on itself. (In a film in which the phrase “free speech” is heard a lot, Mr. Churchill gives the best assessment of it: “If it comes at a price, it’s not free.”)
Ms. Garbus also tells how an Arab-American educator in New York, Debbie Almontaser, lost a principalship after, the film says, remarks she made following 9/11 were distorted. Then “Shouting Fire” throws in the case of Chase Harper, a San Diego student who wore a “Homosexuality Is Shameful” T-shirt to school. What does the T-shirt case have to do with the war theme? Nothing; it’s just a way for Ms. Garbus to acknowledge that not all free-speech issues come from the left, though she’s clearly more interested in those that do.
The arrests at the 2004 convention also get a look, and throughout, Ms. Garbus weaves in the views and back story of her father, Martin Garbus, a noted First Amendment lawyer. The approach is a little odd, but Mr. Garbus is never less than engaging.
Stories From the Edge of Free Speech
HBO, Monday night at 9, Eastern and Pacific times; 8, Central time.
Directed by Liz Garbus; produced by Ms. Garbus, Rory Kennedy and Jed Rothstein; edited by Karen K. H. Sim, co-producer; cinematography by Tom Hurwitz. For HBO: Sheila Nevins, executive producer; Nancy Abraham, senior producer. Produced by HBO Documentary Films.