Mike Klein Online

Review: HBO Documentary “Shouting Fire”

Atlanta Mike Pix_Press_Club_189_-_Version_2Skokie, Illinois in the mid-to-late 1970s was a northwest Chicago suburb where nothing much ever seemed to happen. It was fairly typical in most regards with small frame homes in neat little rows on well kept streets.  Good jobs, good schools, and by some stretch of thought, fairly vanilla.

Then the neo-Nazis announced they were coming to town.

Skokie, Illinois to Frank Collin and his neo-Nazi National Socialist Party of America was “Jew Town.”  In fact, some estimates suggest one-in-six of all Skokie citizens were Holocaust camp survivors or related to survivors. They were raising families in a suburb that suddenly found itself catapulted into national headlines and a free speech constitutional debate that it never sought.

Skokie is one of those American stories that rage on during its time, then it begins to slip quietly deeper into the news background and ultimately, it threatens to disappear altogether.   The Skokie story and several other thought-provoking real world stories are currently examined in a new HBO documentary that asks important questions about free speech in America.

“Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech” is the newest work from Oscar nominee Liz Garbus, the creator of nearly twenty films and recipient of many international and national documentary awards.  “Shouting Fire” is currently airing on HBO.  The Oscar nomination was received for her 1998 film, “The Farm, Angola, USA”.

“Shouting Fire” is unique on several levels.  At 74 minutes, there is significant time for Garbus to explore free speech history at great length, and discuss the challenges posed to free speech in a post 9/11 world.   That “Congress shall make no law” that abridges free speech is explained from historical viewpoints by numerous scholars, and in real terms by people whose lives were, in some cases, nearly ruined when they were singled out

There are nationally prominent stories about a University of Colorado professor who was fired for his controversial writings and a Lebanese-American public school principal in New York who lost her job after news media reports portrayed her as a terrorist sympathizer in a post 9/11 world.

There also are somewhat less prominent stories.  An elderly couple was among some 1,800 who were detained and arrested for marching in New York’s streets during the 2004 Republican convention.  A California high school youth was suspended from school and questioned by police after he wore a shirt to school that said, “Homosexuality is Shameful.”

Throughout the documentary viewers will hear from some of the biggest names in legal land.  The prominent First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams, former Clinton special prosecutor Kenneth Starr and U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Richard H. Posner, along with onetime Marxist sympathizer turned conservative David Horowitz appear throughout the free speech journey.

But none is more prominent, and none makes a greater overall contribution to “Shouting Fire” than does Liz Garbus’ own father, Martin Garbus.  His own story is the fabric of legal legends, not the television lawyers show kind but the real kind.

During a turbulent and high profile career Garbus has been at the center of some of the land’s most important cases, including the Pentagon Papers.  His clients list, an eclectic group, in part reads like a Who’s Who of Recent World History … including Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel and Andrei Sakharov, Nancy Reagan, Alger Hiss, Al Pacino, Sean Connery and hundreds more.

Thirty-two years ago, Garbus represented the National Socialist Party of America in Skokie.

There is a particularly powerful moment in “Shouting Fire” when Liz Garbus asks her father about the conflict he must have felt being a Jewish attorney who was defending the right of neo-Nazis to march in protest in a largely Jewish community.  His response is powerful as Martin tells his daughter he hated representing neo-Nazis as much as he loved defending free speech.

Several courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, were involved in Skokie case hearings.  A final ruling came from the Illinois Supreme Court when it upheld the right of the neo-Nazis to hold their march.  But there never was any march in Skokie, Illinois.  Three marches were held in other Chicago area suburbs; the closest to Skokie was in Lincolnwood, just a few miles away.

“Shouting Fire” is by no means a slow journey through free speech law.  It is brisk, full of human emotion and stories are told by the participants.  Seventy-four minutes passes rapidly without any narrator and no script.  This is entirely a documentary told by people who lived the stories.  Those stories should cause anyone who watches to consider again the extents … and the limits … of what we today refer to as free speech.

Note:  Mike Klein is a former CNN Vice President and Georgia Public Broadcasting executive.  He lived near Skokie, Illinois when neo-Nazis announced they would march.

June 30, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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