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Fighting for the First Amendment

Liz Garbus seeks to spark a national conversation about free speech in America. Her film, Shouting Fire: Stories From the Edge of Free Speech, is the latest in a string of riveting documentaries airing on HBO. Garbus is the creative force behind Shouting Fire and has a lifetime of experience on the front lines of the battle for free speech in America.

It was her lawyer father Martin, even as the child of a Holocaust survivor, who took on the case for the right of Neo-Nazis to march famously in Skokie, Illinois. The case went all the way to the
United States Supreme Court. The American Nazis marched.

Liz and her father Martin on the Shouting Fire set 

In Shouting Fire, Garbus, along with her fighting-for-the-First-Amendment father, take a look at free speech in America and how it has been challenged and altered. Much of the focus of the
film centers on how the First Amendment has been challenged since the country was attacked on 9/11.

Free speech in the US since 9/11

Garbus cites several cases that have escaped the headlines that are sure to challenge and provoke the rights of American citizens to do, wear, say or be what we like.

SheKnows: First off, as the movie premieres on HBO June 29, how does it feel to have Shouting Fire reach a wide audience?

Liz Garbus: It’s a film that deals with a controversial issue that I think will offend people on both sides of the aisle. It’s good to get the conversation going.
That’s what free speech is all about.

One of Garbus' subjects: kicked out of school for a T-Shirt

SheKnows: Of course, the title is very famous in its legal lineage, why did you choose Shouting Fire as the title of this film?

Liz Garbus: Shouting Fire is that famous constitutional test of free speech. Free speech does not mean you’re allowed to shout fire in a crowded theater. The idea
being, ‘yeah, speech is free, but there is limits on free speech. You cannot insite violence or chaos or disruption. What we did was look at those cases that were on the edge of free speech.
What are the lines? What is shouting fire and what is speaking freely? Those are the cases that I think are quite interesting and important to talk about.

American insecurity

SheKnows: In your experience, how do you think free speech in America has been challenged in the last eight years versus what we saw in the ’50s with the McCarthy Commission
and the communist witch hunt?

Liz Garbus: I think when the nation is at war, or is in a period of crisis, you see a constriction on civil liberties. The Patriot Act the Bush administration passed on the wake of
9/11 which had restriction on civil liberties — certainly increased the government’s power to survey citizens. I think what we see in this modern period are restrictions in free speech that
come from private sector. Where there are private organizations which will react or overreact to speech and crack down — whereas during the McCarthy era in the Cold War, those were, of course,
government hearings. I think many people today enjoy free speech. I think when I go into some communities, like Muslim-American communities, free speech feels much less free. There’s
certainly a feeling of restriction on what people can talk about in those communities. I think it’s depends where you go.

After 9/11, free speech is tough to come by in Muslim communities

Better by Barack?

SheKnows: And how do you think it’s or do you think it’s changed since January 20?

Liz Garbus: The jury’s still out. I think in general there’s a sense that the Obama Administration is friendlier to civil liberties. One of the first things he did was
lift the ban on showing soldier’s coffins being brought home – which was a ridiculous restriction on free speech to keep the war out of the public’s eye even if those were our
country-people dying for us. That was a good thing. But, I think the decision about the torture photos. There were more torture photos to come out. The Obama Administration would not let them come
out. I don’t think that’s the right decision. The right decision is that in order for our country to evolve and make better foreign policy decisions, you need to have this conversation.
In the case of The Pentagon Papers, which my father was involved in that we talk about in the film, the same argument was used. If you let the Pentagon Papers out, it will jeopardize our troops.
Well, that wasn’t the case. Again, I don’t think in this case, it will be the case. You let these photos out and I think…(she pauses)…free speech is the
cornerstone of our democracy. We have to fight hard to uphold it even when it’s uncomfortable.

This building, the US Supreme Court, wields the First Amendment power

First Amendment father figure

SheKnows: You just brought him up and I had to ask you about working with your father, Martin?

Liz Garbus: It’s wonderful to work with my father. It was a life experience that we’ll have forever. I was happy to honor the work that he’s done. He’s made
some hard and uncomfortable decisions in who he’s represented. Like the Nazis of Skokie, Illinois.

SheKnows: That must have been difficult.

Liz Garbus: His father fled the Holocaust. But, it was really interesting to get in and have discussions and this debate. I appreciate the opportunity that HBO and Sheila Levin
gave me in order to make this film.

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