Martin Garbus is tearing up again. He’s tried to stop, but his big hazel eyes are brimming over—round, cartoon tears rolling down the face he describes, modestly, as “young Marlon Brando” (albeit a burnished St.-Tropez brown).
You wouldn’t, from his formidable reputation as one of the country’s leading First Amendment lawyers, peg Garbus as a weeper. Over the course of his long career—most famously, he defended Daniel Ellsberg—he’s been shot at, threatened, and jailed. But meet him and his daughter, Liz, at his father’s old candy store in the Bronx, where he used to work part time, and this is what you get: waterworks.
“Dad,” Liz says with a laugh, “do you have to go outside?”
“No, no, I’m fine,” Martin says, composing himself. “See, I look at these cups … ” He gestures to a stack of paper coffee cups behind the counter and dissolves again into tears. Seongman Chung, who has owned the shop for the past twenty years with his wife, silently offers him a napkin.
“I remember the story you used to tell,” Liz prods her father, gently. “The ice cream was back there.”
“Eight flavors,” he chokes.
“Because you were the only Jews in the neighborhood,” she continues, “the customers would always accuse you of not giving them enough in the cone.”
Martin nods. “Or when I packed it into quarts, they would say I left too much air in the bottom.”
“They always thought you were cheating them,” Liz continues. “And your father told you that no matter what they said, you just had to give more. Because as a Jew you weren’t supposed to talk back.”
Talking back, of course, eventually became Martin’s business. He’s had a hand in what feels like every important First Amendment case in the past 50 years, representing not just Ellsberg but also Lenny Bruce, members of the Weather Underground, Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez, Chuck D, and Don Imus.
Garbus, who moved to the Upper West Side when he was 36, pegs the start of his career back to his days at the candy shop with his father, a Polish immigrant who never really learned to speak English. “I was just a kid, but I was his translator,” Garbus says, his voice breaking again.
“Dad! This is ridiculous. The Chungs are losing respect for you.”
Liz, whose documentary about her father, Shouting Fire: Stories From the Edge of Free Speech, airs June 29 on HBO, says he has always sided with the underdog. “If somebody was getting screwed, he felt he needed to go fight for them, even if it was to his detriment.” Early in his career, for instance, Martin horrified his father by defending the right of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois. Later, his decision to sue the Daily News on behalf of an alleged rape victim cost him his membership in a guild of First Amendment lawyers and his association with the firm he founded.
While Shouting Fire is, in large part, a paean by Liz to Martin’s work, the two often used to clash. As a student at Brown in the nineties, she supported the school when it expelled a vocally racist, anti-Semitic student. “My argument was that at a certain point, society realizes there are important values that we agree upon.”
Her father disagreed, she says. “He was like, you have to let it in. You hate it, but you let the speech in and you fight it with other speech.”
It wasn’t until her father took on Don Imus as a client that she conceived of Shouting Fire. “That case really focused me on what is the acceptable definition of free speech,” Liz says. She didn’t approve of Imus’s sense of humor, but CBS’ decision to terminate him “made me think about the debates my father and I had over time.” Throughout the film, she says, “you find yourself defending ideas you find reprehensible.”
Her father, who has been blinking rapidly, snuffles audibly.
“Oh, Dad,” Liz offers, moving in for a hug. “It’s all very emotional for him,” she explains. “Being here, but also doing the film with me. Right, Dad?”
“Of course, it’s you.”
“To have your child here in this store?”
“And to have you do the film and embrace the values.” His face crumples, then he gets distracted by the countertop.
“Did you replace this, or did we?” he asks Chung. A long conversation ensues about the store, which Chung says he will sell to pay for his son to go to law school.
“So you see, the cycle repeats!” Garbus says. “How much are you selling it for?”
“What, are you going to buy the place?” Liz asks her father, whose eyes are welling up again. She sighs. “You’d never stop weeping. It would be a problem.”