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Interview with Liz Garbus

Liz Garbus

HBO

Your film doesn't take sides. Instead, it explores some of the voices of free speech both historically, and within the context of today's post-9/11 world.

Liz Garbus

Free speech is free speech. And free speech means protecting even the ideas you hate. In times of political crisis, there's often a march towards conformity and towards sort of lining up to support whatever effort the nation is under. During World War I that was anti-Socialist fervor, and during World War II, of course, the Japanese were suspect. During the McCarthy Era and the Cold War, Socialist and Progressive politics were suspect. Today we find ourselves in some ways repeating these patterns where people critical of U.S. foreign policy find themselves in tight spots, and find their free speech to be not so free. So it felt like an important time to look at the lessons of history and make an appeal for mistakes to not be repeated.

HBO

In the film, you feature the comedian Lenny Bruce who was famous for offending people and for breaking down racial stereotypes.

Free speech is free speech. And free speech means protecting even the ideas you hate.

Liz Garbus

Well, Lenny Bruce is a great free speech hero. He would go on stage and give these routines and use all kinds of outrageous language. But he was an equal opportunity offender. He would say things like, "Is there a nigger in the house? Is there a kike here?" (Lenny was Jewish) And his idea is, it's not the words themselves that are powerful, it's the meaning we give them. And when you throw it all in there and mix it all up, the words become less powerful once we become comfortable with them. But in the late sixties when Lenny was working, that was not the prevailing feeling at the time. And Lenny was thrown in jail over and over. His shows were shut down. And it eroded a man who ultimately sort of died, I think, in the process of trying to embrace free expression. And so I think Lenny was certainly a great model for the film.

Ultimately though this is not a right or a left wing film, it's about pressure to conformity. And if that's conforming in that you're not supposed to talk about the Iraq War in negative terms or if you're not supposed to talk about homosexuality in negative terms, then those are both pressures towards conformity. And so we wanted to examine that on all sides of the political spectrum.

HBO

Can a filmmaker be truly objective when covering a subject, especially one as controversial as free speech?

Liz Garbus

I don't believe that any sort of expression of thought or ideas is ever truly objective. I think what's important in this film, and for democracy, is that if you're for free speech, you have to also protect the ideas you hate, and that's the real test of fighting for free speech. I think that because the film does have a personal bent to it, because my father (attorney Martin Garbus) is a kind of a guide to many of the cases that we hear about in the film and historically, this film does have a personal feel to it because of that unique history that my father brings to it, and I being his daughter, cannot help bring to it. The act of filmmaking in and of itself is an exercise of our free speech rights. So I think it's impossible to not have a point of view on these things.

What is wonderful about America - and it's really the core instrument of a democracy - is the ability to have free speech, is the ability to have these arguments; it's how we created ourselves as a nation.

HBO

What do you hope HBO audiences will take away from the film?

Liz Garbus

I hope audiences will watch this film and look at what we have learned in our history, whether it be locking up Socialists during World War I or interning the Japanese during World War II. None of these things have really kept us safer. So I think when we look at civil liberties in our country, what is wonderful about America - and it's really the core instrument of a democracy - is the ability to have free speech, is the ability to have these arguments; it's how we created ourselves as a nation. And as my father says in the beginning of the film, for our Founding Fathers to write the First Amendment and to imagine these freedoms-it was so revolutionary and brilliant, and it's really the cornerstone of all of our freedoms.

There's a quote in the film that without free speech you can't fight for the rest of your freedoms. It's the one that allows you to fight for the rest of them, and that is so important to keep in mind as people think, well, there's no other opinion about 9/11, or there's no other opinion about the Middle East crisis, that of course there are other opinions, and we need to protect even those ideas that we hate.

We see today the streets of Iran are overwhelmed with people exercising their right to protest. Free speech, free expression, free assembly-those are the guarantees that we have a free society. And we need to celebrate them and understand them.

Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech

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