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Television Review

The First Amendment, with little give-and-take

Director Liz Garbus and her father, lawyer Martin Garbus. Director Liz Garbus and her father, lawyer Martin Garbus. (Matt Carr/Getty Images)
By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / June 29, 2009
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While you can never get too much exposure to the First Amendment, your eyes can glaze over without fresh insight - a new defense of it, a new argument limiting it. Don’t look for anything of this in “Shouting Fire: Stories From the Edge of Free Speech.’’

There’s nothing wrong with the program, airing tonight at 9 on HBO. It is a solid, boilerplate documentary that breaks no new ground and more to the point, is told almost largely from the point of view of First Amendment stalwarts. There is no pretense of balance here. This is a cri de coeur from the American left.

Liz Garbus, who wrote and directed “Shouting Fire,’’ anchors it around her father, Martin, the hardcore First Amendment lawyer known, among other things, for helping to defend the right of neo-Nazis to parade through the streets of Skokie, Ill., home to many Holocaust survivors. He is joined by a raft of prominent First Amendment advocates - equally feisty and combative, like Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

We do hear briefly from the other side - David Horowitz, the right-wing irritant and author of a book that lists the 101 most dangerous academics in America, and small sound bites of Richard Posner, a US Court of Appeals Justice for the Seventh Circuit, who is never given the chance to present a sophisticated conservative argument.

The film’s central point is to demonstrate how free speech inevitably suffers in times of war. Suppression started in 1798 through the Alien and Sedition Acts, signed by President John Adams during an undeclared war with France.

Labor leader Eugene Debs was jailed for his opposition to World War I. During the Vietnam War, the government unsuccessfully sued Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg over his release of classified documents that uncovered government lies about the conduct of the conflict.

During the war on terror of George W. Bush, Americans were introduced to the USA Patriot Act, which drastically expanded government’s power to monitor private conversations. Garbus wisely includes old news footage of many of these fights to add a visceral element to the talking heads.

There are always troubling new cases. One occurred in 2007 involving Lebanese-American Debbie Almontaser, founding principal of Khalil Gibran International Academy, the first Arabic-English public school in New York City. Pressed by a reporter to define “intifada,’’ she said it literally means “struggle’’ or “uprising.’’

She was immediately attacked for running what would be a Muslim school, and forced to resign. Almontaser sued the Department of Education in federal court arguing that her First Amendment rights had been violated.

Garbus also wades into the controversy surrounding the incendiary University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, officially fired for research misconduct. But he also had infuriated many over his statements and writing that that US foreign policy abuses played a role in the motivation for the 9/11 attacks. Churchill sued the university for wrongful termination of employment and won.

The First Amendment thrives on controversy, and “Shouting Fire’’ would have benefited from a taut debate about its boundaries. Isn’t that what the First Amendment is all about?

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.

SHOUTING FIRE: Stories From the Edge of Free Speech Directed by Liz Garbus

On: HBO

Time: Tonight, 9-10:15

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