Liberal lawmakers are mulling the reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine, legislation which would all but shut down conservative talkers like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. And free speech on college campuses across the nation often clashes with rules designed to curb inappropriate comments — typically comments that don’t meet the approval of the Left.
But “Shouting Fire,” which airs at 8 p.m. EST June 29 on HBO, isn’t interested in any of the above. Instead, it seeks to explore – again – the McCarthy Era while putting disgraced professor Ward Churchill’s case into that context.
The film’s director, Liz Garbus, draws heavily on her own father, First Amendment attorney Martin Garbus, for commentary. He’s an eloquent spokesman for his cause, but he‘s only asked about certain causes. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear him opine on the Fairness Doctrine or other topics not considered free enough for the documentary?
A few conservatives take part in the program. But people like David Horowitz, the author of “The Professors” and an ardent voice in favor of conservatives on college campuses, appear just long enough to be painted as the villain. He’s not allowed to explain his thoughts in any substantial way. Nor is Daniel Pipes, a prolific scholar on Middle Eastern issues.
All the while other talking heads repeatedly deride their opponents as being right wingers with their tentacles all over the press.
Churchill, The University of Colorado professor who called the people in the World Trade Center “Little Eichmanns,” is shown here as a hero, an intellectual who dared to buck conventional academic wisdom. And oh, did he pay dearly for his words, or so we’re led to believe.
Actually, Churchill was never in fear of being thrown in jail as was the case with the McCarthy Era. Instead, he lost his job. And not because of his insane ramblings that insulted those killed on Sept. 11, 2001. He got canned for significant academic fraud.
But when “Shouting Fire” finally gets around to sharing that inconvenient truth, it does in a manner akin to an apology.
Left unsaid, naturally, is just how quickly free speech grinds to a halt when the speech involves a protected minority group. Just look what happened to former Harvard President Larry Summers when he suggested “innate differences” between men and women might be one reason women don’t fare as well at math and science.
Even with caveats like “might” and “one reason,” Summers was quickly forced to resign. Needless to say he isn’t given a voice in “Shouting Fire.”
The documentary stands on more firm ground when it shares a poll taken just after 9/11 in which Americans expressed concerns about just how wide-ranging the First Amendment truly is.
That’s a topic worth pursuing. So, too, is the story of Debbie Almontaser, a New York City school principal who was forced to resign after a convoluted crisis involving a T-shirt with the slogan “Intifada NYC” became indirectly connected to her.
The documentary attempts to reflect several sides of her story. But time and time again, the film doesn’t dig deep enough for either side to speak its peace. We get snippets of what happened, but you’ll have to do your own research to fill in the many blanks.
“Shouting Fire” strives for a modicum of topical balance by examining the case of a student who wore a T-shirt proclaiming “Homosexuality is Shameful” during a gay rights event at his school.
Later, we meet with anti-war protestors who tried to march during the 2004 Republican National Convention but were arrested a mere five minutes into their walk.
Again, we don’t hear the charges against them, nor do we learn exactly why they were scooped up. When one recalls the massive amount of protests throughout President George W. Bush’s eight years in office it’s hard to square that with this attempt at squelching free speech.
Between these speech segments, the documentary shows some historical examples where free speech ran afoul of the public — or the government. In a way, “Shouting Fire” seems too ambitious here, although historical context is rarely a negative when put next to modern conflicts.
Free speech remains one of the country’s most important, and misunderstood, principles. People can say whatever they like — unless they’re shouting fire in a crowded theater to which the title alludes. But public and private organizations can still hold them accountable for their words.
If the Dixie Chicks speak out against President George W. Bush, then music fans have a right to stop buying their records, for example, even though the Chicks cried censorship in every media outlet they could find.
That conflict could have fueled one compelling documentary, the push and pull between free speech and a free market. Instead, “Shouting Fire” took a far less challenging, and intellectually dishonest, course.
HBO routinely brings audiences some of the best programming on the dial – broadcast or cable. Some of its content leans left, but mostly it allows artists to nurture their vision. Shows like “True Blood” are given time to develop, to grow, without fear of a quick cancellation.
That approach attracts the best and brightest creative talents, and the results often speak for themselves.
“Shouting Fire” represents a step back from that approach, an example of ideology restricting a fascinating subject.