TV

Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge

Liz Garbus' documentary makes its case for free speech methodically, with examples ranging from notorious to obscure, that show the censoring of communications that lean both left and right.

Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge

Airtime: Monday, 9pm ET
Cast: Martin Garbus, Kenneth Starr, Jack M. Sleeth, Eric Foner, Josh Wolf, Donna Lieberman, Richard Posner, Ward Churchill, David Horowitz, Debbie Almontaser
Network: HBO
Director: Liz Garbus
Air date: 2009-06-28
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It is precisely in the case of horrendous ideas that the right of free expression must be most vigorously defended; it is easy enough to defend free expression for those who require no such defense.

--Noam Chomsky

If it comes with a price, it's not free.

--Ward Churchill

"There have been battles over free speech since beginning of our nation," says attorney Eric Foner. Following this grand-sounding generalization with a slightly closer point: "Wars are often a moment in our history when the government feels it necessary to limit our speech." As set-up to the argument made in Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech, this assessment is surprisingly unsurprising. As much as Americans like to tout free speech as a defining element in their politics and culture, fear and ignorance tend to overwhelm common sense and historical understanding. And so it is, that since 9/11, the U.S. has -- legally and alarmingly -- been curtailing First Amendment rights.

Liz Garbus' documentary makes its case methodically, with examples ranging from notorious to obscure, that show the censoring of communications that lean both left and right. Each case concerns limits imposed on speaking out against prevailing notions, whether these notions be traditional or relatively new (as in, "politically correct"). And each indicates that no minority view-holder is quite safe, now, from prosecution or persecution.

Garbus, a longtime producer and director for HBO's remarkable documentary division, brings some specific background to the project, background that she makes clear from frame one. Her father, Martin Garbus, opens Shouting Fire, by reciting the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press," he begins. " Identified as a First Amendment Attorney, he's well-known as a trial lawyer and teacher (at Yale, Columbia, and in China and the Czech Republic, among other places), as well as an advocate for figures including Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, and Daniel Ellsberg. The last is one of the cases Shouting Fire situates as a precedent to the current cracking down: when erstwhile Vietnam war hawk Ellsberg helped to write and then read the Pentagon Papers, which revealed at least some of the deceptions that initiated and sustained the war, he released the documents to the press, risking all manner of legal consequences in the name of free speech.

Garbus says he never had doubts about his work on that case, even when he was also threatened with legal action and possible, considerable jail time. His daughter asks from off-screen, "You had kids at the time. Were you concerned about not being there for us?" Martin Garbus explains, on beat, "I never took those two things and put them one against the other." That is, defending free speech was a most emphatic and direct way of "being there" for his family, of ensuring their own lives as citizens of a democracy.

As much as Ellsberg and McCarthyism provide seemingly self-evident instances of good and bad First Amendment history, the post-9/11 illustrations are still in process, and so, are unresolved. One highly publicized case is that of Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado history professor who was fired after he published an article on 9/11 that includes this passage: "If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the Twin Towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it." While the language might be incendiary, the documentary suggests, it is hardly cause for persecution -- perhaps especially when fears of tyranny and terrorism were raging just after the attacks.

Still, the media (primarily Fox News) frenzy that swirled around Churchill, and the university's efforts to rid itself of the political vexation he came to be, are noted here in the interest of offering a "context." Anne Neal, ACTA chairman, says that Churchill was in fact, "not alone" but instead "quite common," regarding his views of the effectiveness of the attacks, and even became an instance of that effectiveness. (If the terrorists don't "win" by shutting down capitalism, i.e., shopping, they shut down free speech.)

Here the film deploys a strategy it repeats throughout, which is to bring in a right-wing representative or two in order to seem even-handed. (Another strategy, inserting choice bits of popular cultural illustrations, like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the animated Animal Farm, and The Big Lebowski, is more distracting than pointed.) David Horowitz argues against Churchill and other liberal professors who reportedly dominate university campuses, saying he means to "protect conservative students" from exposure to left-wing radicalism. But the case against Churchill quickly veered into hysteria ("Can he be tried for either sedition or treason?" asks Bill O'Reilly), and his dismissal, based on a committee investigation that found him "professionally disqualified" rather than liable for this single utterance, looks especially shady, as the school was able to preserve its apparent support of free speech but eliminate the free speaker who brought such grief.

Shouting Fire looks back on several other recent cases to show the narrowing definitions of "free" when it comes to speech in the U.S., where the Patriot Act is the law of the land. Debbie Almontaser was forced to resign her position as principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy in New York City when the school was subject to a campaign by the "Stop the Madrassa Coalition" (which essentially named the school -- designed to offer classes in Arabic and English, part of a dual language education program established in many other schools in the city -- a training facility for terrorists). Almontaser's firing (under the guise of resignation) was occasioned by an interview she gave to the New York Post, in which her definition of "intifada," in answer to the reporter's question, became her support of same. When Liz asks her father, "They can essentially assassinate someone's character like that and there's no penalty no legal remedy?" he can only nod. As there was no clear case for libel, Almontaser had no recourse, and the city -- shamefully, in Martin Garbus' estimation -- refused to stand by her, replacing her with an interim principal who speaks no Arabic.

The film's own position is plain even in the case of Tyler Chase Harper's "Homosexuality is Shameful" t-shirt, which he wore to his high school in Poway, California. Though attorney Kevin Theriot states that "no student was offended by the t-shirt, the film shows this is patently not true, with testimony by a student to the contrary. Still, the documentary submits, the First Amendment guarantees that even offensive language cannot be censored. This even though Ken Starr says, "I think schools can regulate that time and place and manner [of offensive speech] to a much greater extent than the government can." The problem with this parsing of the Amendment is clear when Richard Posner chimes in: "These are just kids. What do they have to contribute to the marketplace of ideas and opinions?"

Indeed. Who are these kids -- or these workers or these communists or these Muslims or these women -- who believe they have the same right rights to speak as anyone else in the U.S.? They are, as Shouting Fire puts it, citizens of a nation that by definition holds that right dear.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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