Freedom to Teach? Academic Freedom Post-9/11

  • submit to reddit

Just days after September 11th, a California professor lashed out at Islam…and ignited a controversy. This episode of NOW with Bill Moyers questioned whether freedom of speech was collateral damage in the war on terrorism. First, a visit to the campus of Orange Coast College in California to see why conservative political science professor Kenneth Hearlson was suspended from the classroom. And then a visit to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to ask students and professors “Are there any areas of opinion that should be off-limits in the classroom?”


In an interview with Bill Moyers, Muslim scholar Azizah al-Hibri talked about the need for Muslims and non-Muslims to engage in more open dialogue. She explained: “How Americans see themselves and how non-Americans — people outside, not just Muslims but third-world people — see America is a totally different thing…”


BILL MOYERS: Welcome to NOW.

This week 60 American scholars, including some noted public intellectuals, signed an open letter in support of the War on Terrorism.

They call the use of force necessary and just.

Their statement confirms the obvious: the campus, like the country, is solidly behind the war.

There are dissenters, professors who have been critical of the president and his administration’s policies. For this, they have been censured, deluged with hate mail, or threatened with tar and feathers.

Usually it’s these critics of government who need the protection of academic freedom to speak their mind.

We’ve seen this before. Back in 1967 during the height of the Vietnam War, the Supreme Court declared that “the First Amendment does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.”

That doesn’t mean you won’t land in hot water for saying what you think. And it’s not just critics of the war who always feel the heat.

Take the case of Kenneth Hearlson, a conservative political science professor at Orange Coast College in Newport Beach, California.

Kenneth Hearlson is a man of strong opinions. That’s the first thing he wants his students to know.

KENNETH HEARLSON: My job is not here — for you to like me. You don’t have to like me. I’m not here to gain friends. My job is to make you think.

HA TRAN, STUDENT: In the first day of class he said that I will offend you guys. This is a political science class and I will offend you guys.

HEARLSON: I tell ’em exactly who I am. I’m for — number one, I believe in my god, and that God is Jesus. I love my family, I love my wife. That I believe in my country. and I believe in traditional values.

BILL MOYERS: Hearlson is an ex-Marine, a one-time farmer and day laborer who became a college administrator. Eighteen years ago he became a professor at Orange Coast College. Along the way, he also became a born-again Christian.

HEARLSON: I may mention God in terms of traditional values, and even Scripture out of the Old Testament on Ten Commandments, and stuff. But I — I’m not out there to convert anybody. It’s not my job. God will take care of all that.

PROFESSOR SUSAN SMITH: As a human being, he’s gone through an epiphany in that he used to be the advisor for the gay/lesbian club on campus. Now, he’s a conservative Christian. Um, I think it’s that metamorphosis that’s a little surprising to people but he’s always been … Been passionate.

BILL MOYERS: Hearlson’s strong opinions often lead to disagreements, even debates, with students of differing backgrounds.

HEARLSON: Even many liberal students will say, “I didn’t like that class — I didn’t like your values, I don’t like the way you put things out there,” he said, “but I learned so much, because you gave us an opportunity to just have free speech. We could speak of anything in this class, and there was no one could jump on us. Because you were always there to say, ‘Look, they have the right to speak, just like I have the right to speak. ‘”

BILL MOYERS: That’s the way it went, apparently, until the terrorist attacks on September 11th.

HEARLSON: My students were clamoring to understand why, why, why? What did we do so bad in America that would make people do this to us?

BILL MOYERS: Hours after the attacks, Hearlson showed his political science class part of a PBS documentary, THE SWORD OF ISLAM.

EXCERPT FROM SWORD OF ISLAM: 600 years after the Crusades, Muslim extremists are at war with the West.

BILL MOYERS: The film, produced in 1987 by Britain’s Granada TV, examined the roots of Islamic terrorism.

HEALRSON: Lots of clerics in there preaching hate against the United States, preaching hate against — Israel, “we will take Jerusalem back,” et cetera. It was a great film. I don’t have any regrets showing the film.

EXCERPT FROM SWORD OF ISLAM: These people are the Shia Muslims of Lebanon.

BILL MOYERS: Some Muslim students were taken aback by the film, but their response was muted until a week later when Hearlson continued lecturing on terrorism. He spoke out in defense of Israel and scolded Arabs for not condemning terrorism. Tempers flared, as this excerpt from an audiotape of the class reveals.

HEARLSON ON AUDIO TAPE: I do not see the Arab world standing up and saying this is wrong what’s happening to Israel. We should not let those people terrorize Israel. We should not let them suicide bomb Israel. We should – I have never seen it. You bring a paper to me, I will believe you. Otherwise, I will not believe you.

BILL MOYERS: When Muslim students protested, Hearlson, speaking about the 1967 Six-Day War, seemed to get personal.

HEARLSON ON AUDIO TAPE: You know exactly what I’m talking about: the Six-Day War. And what did the Israelis do? They only had 300,000 people. They kicked the Arabs’ butts. That’s a fact. And what did you do? You came back and attacked, and attacked them again in 1973 on Yom Kippur. One of the holiest days in Israel, the Arab nations attacked them again.

ABRAHAM APPEL, STUDENT: He was very, “you this… you this.” You know, why did you do terrorism towards Palestine? That’s not something you ever say to somebody, especially in such a time…

HEARLSON: I’ve been teaching on terrorism for some years. Many Muslim students over the years — I’ve had great debates with Muslim students. Nothing anything like this, nothing. It was always looked at— they— they respected my right to teach, I respected a right to counter argument on it.

BRIAN SCHEELE, STUDENT: He said something about how the Muslim countries in the world should stand up and say, or denounce … The terrorist activities by Osama bin Laden and … They got offended by that and they went to the administration.

BILL MOYERS: Four Muslim students complained to the dean. One filed a written protest. Among her accusations, she said Hearlson:

“— pointed and called a male Muslim student a terrorist and said he bombed the World Trade Center.

“— said that Muslims and Arabs should not be shown mercy because they do not side with Israel.

“— pointed at a female Muslim student and said that people like her are Nazis.”

Another Muslim student also filed a written complaint. He called Hearlson’s actions: “absurd, careless, prejudiced, stereotypical, and very racist.” Moreover, he said:

“The professor continued to preach to the class and reminded them that his information was ‘the facts’ and continued to bash against all Arabs in general, stating that they were terrorists, murderers, rapists, slave owners and racists.

“He made sure that every person in that class was turned against us and believed that we were behind the terrorist attack that our nation encountered.”

When the vice president of the college asked for an explanation, Hearlson responded:

HEARLSON: This is America. You can complain about anything you want. And — but I did tell the vice president, I said, “these are false allegations. I’m sorry. These did not happen in the classroom, sir.” And I was very clear to him. This did not happen.

BILL MOYERS: Hearlson said he had not called the Muslim students ‘terrorists, murderers or Nazis.’

But the dispute came at an explosive time. Southern California, like the nation, was a tinderbox of emotions.

MARGARET GRATTON, PRESIDENT OF ORANGE COAST COMMUNITY COLLEGE: Violence towards Muslims began almost immediately in the aftermath of September 11th. A shopkeeper in Los Angeles was shot to death. He was Middle Eastern. And in the ensuing weeks, over 30 hate crimes had been recorded in this area.

BILL MOYERS: Margaret Gratton is president of Orange Coast College:

MARGARET GRATTON: Our Muslim students — who are young and inexperienced, felt extraordinarily vulnerable.

BILL MOYERS: The offended Muslim students refused repeated requests to talk to us, but Abraham Appel spoke as their friend.

ABRAHAM APPEL: They’re very strong religious people. They’re good people, wear their hijabs even though they’re under danger; you got to respect that. He didn’t respect it. He just put them in more danger.

ROBERT DEES: The Muslim students— given it was the week after 9/11, may have been in a quandary as to what to do. And they may have felt that they had to go outside for advice, and then things may have gotten out of their hands.

HEARLSON: The Islamic societies, the national and the LA and the Orange County society, was putting pressure on the school to do something about me, which was, number one, fire me.

BILL MOYERS: College officials were now caught between the free speech rights of a tenured professor and the sensibilities of its Muslim students. Vice-President Dees called Hearlson:

HEARLSON: And I’m told by phone that— “Would you go on a leave of absence?” And I said, “Well, will it help things at this— at the college? Kinda simmer people down?” And the Vice President said to me, “Yes, we think it will.”

BILL MOYERS: So the college suspended Hearlson with pay as it launched an official investigation. The action upset students who supported their professor:

AMY LAWSON, STUDENT: My dad read it in the newspaper and he woke me up. He told me. He’s like “your teacher has been removed from your class.” And I was like “Oh my gosh, I can’t even believe that this is happening.”

BILLIE CRISS, STUDENT: The other teachers … Some of them are gonna be a little afraid of what they can say in school now because of what happened to him.

MATT THIEDE, STUDENT: I felt after that, there was some anti-Muslim feeling because now not only did some terrorists that were Muslims attack us, but now we feel these Muslims are also attacking our teacher.

HEARLSON: I believe the college was concerned, because of obviously— the situation we have in this country after the terrorist attacks, and— and with Muslim folks themselves. But I tried to tell them, “This is a classroom. There’s nobody getting hurt in that class. This is debate. We can all debate.”

PROFESSOR SUSAN SMITH: Professor Hearlson’s point of how can one condemn the World Trade Center bombing and not condemn the suicide bombers in Israel is a very germane question. It’s a valid question. It’s a question that needs to be discussed.

BILL MOYERS: The dispute became news in local, then national media. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education which opposes political correctness took up Hearlson’s cause.

HEARLSON: I don’t believe in political correctness. I never believed in it. There’s no reason for it. Either we love people or we don’t love them…and so I believe the college administration saw this as a chance to get rid of this controversial Christian conservative.

BILL MOYERS: Excerpts of the tapes published by the student newspaper suggested that the professor had been wrongly accused by the muslims, that he had not in fact held them personally responsible for terrorist acts. Listen:

HEARLSON ON AUDIO TAPE: Let him speak, please.

MALE STUDENT ON AUDIO TAPE: I am trying to restate something you said earlier. You said that you attacked, blah, blah, blah. That person did not attack.

HEARLSON ON AUDIO TAPE: No, that person did not.

MALE STUDENT ON AUDIO TAPE: I know, I just wanted to correct you.

HEARLSON ON TAPE: Absolutely. I am talking about Arab nations.

ABRAHAM APPEL: Well, you know, honestly, their accounts were a little off, but like I said, it was a very emotional time. It’s hard to keep things on track when you feel endangered and emotional all at once.

MARGARET GRATTON: There’s been so much discussion about September 11th and its impact. And I don’t think any of us have yet the — perspective or the wisdom to fully understand. We were all in grief and shock. We could live another lifetime and we would never have a convergence of emotions, events — anger and confusion to equal this again.

BILL MOYERS: After nearly three months on paid leave, Hearlson was called back to campus to hear the findings of the investigation.

MICHELLE REINGLASS, HEARLSON’S ATTORNEY: The good news is that Professor Hearlson will be restored to his classroom and will be teaching at the beginning of the spring semester.

BILL MOYERS: Hearlson’s lawyer is Michelle Reinglass.

MICHELLE REINGLASS: The report essentially says that the allegations against Professor Hearlson were unsubstantiated. As far as the allegations of racism, the allegation of singling out individuals, the allegations that he accused Muslim students of being terrorists, those have not been substantiated.

BILL MOYERS: But it wasn’t over. Hearlson was still thought to have uttered intemperate words in a volatile time. College officials gave Hearlson a letter whose contents they wouldn’t discuss publicly.

MICHELLE REINGLASS: The uh, college has indicated they do not construe the letter to be a reprimand. We construe it very seriously to be a reprimand

MARGARET GRATTON: The letter is a confidential personnel matter.

BILL MOYERS: The president of the college refused to characterize the letter and said the Professor’s freedom to express his opinions in class remained intact.

MARGARET GRATTON: Mr. Hearlson’s rights are fully protected by law, by contract and by the policies and procedures of Orange Coast College.

REPORTER: Does that include now having to watch what he says in class?

MARGARET GRATTON: Absolutely not.

REPORTER: Someone have seemed …

PRESIDENT GRATTON: I am going to conclude this. I have no further comments.

REPORTER: Can I ask you one more question?

PRESIDENT GRATTON: No. I am finished now. Thank you very much. You’ve been great.

HEARLSON: Reprimanding me means that I did something wrong. That means all the wonderful students that stepped forward and said, “This didn’t happen, Mr. Hearlson didn’t say that, we still support him, et cetera.” I believe the college is saying to them, “We don’t believe you either.”

BILL MOYERS: With the start of the spring semester at Orange Coast College, Professor Hearlson has returned to the classroom for the first time since September 18.

We were curious to see what another campus thinks about free speech.

We went to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. And asked people if there were any areas of opinion that should be off-limits in the classroom.

ROSALINE, STUDENT: There shouldn’t be an area that’s off-limits. I can’t even think of a reason why something should be off-limits.

JENNY, TENURED PROFESSOR: I’m not going to say something that I don’t think I should, would be over the line, but I’m sure that there are things that are over the line. It’s just that most professors who have tenure have gone through a process that really weeds out people with extreme opinions…

LINDSAY, STUDENT: I’m really religious, and so I want to be able to have the freedom to say what I believe, and if someone puts a limit on what I’m able to say, or what I believe, is kinda constricting, and it’s not what college is about.

MICHAEL, STUDENT: I say that everything should be explored. Everything should be out there in the open. Some stuff like bestiality I don’t think should be even touched on. I’m not down with that.

ROSALINE, STUDENT:I’m sure someone could say something controversial, outlandish, racist, sexist, whatever, but I think it all depends on the context, and, again, it depends when someone questions them on it, what their reaction is.

LISA, ADJUNCT PROFESSOR: I think that I can pretty much say whatever I’d like, especially if it means that it’s gonna cause students to bring something out that they have to say. And often, I am willing to risk putting my own opinions out there to get the students going.

MICHAEL, STUDENT: They should bring their personal opinions to class. And get crazy with their ideas and subjects. Tell me what’s up, ya know. And I’ll tell you what’s up.

JENNY, TENURED PROFESSOR: I don’t think any opinions should be off limits. I think that’s what one thing that really defines a university in America, is that it should be a safe space for the free exchange and open exchange of ideas. If it’s not, then there’s no way that there can be any criticism of, of…of the system, or that there can be any way to think of new ideas and really be innovative.

MICHAEL, STUDENT: I’m Jewish. If you were say like I hate Jewish people, I’d be pretty pissed. I’m not down with hatin’ on people. I love everyone.

BILL MOYERS: Listening to each other is often hard.

Since 9/11, there have been tense exchanges, especially between Muslims and non-Muslims. At least one American I know is trying to change that: Muslim scholar Azizah al-Hibri.

She’s a professor of law at the University of Uichmond in Virginia, a securities and corporate lawyer, a careful reader of the Quaran and the American Constitution. She’s also the founder and executive director of Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights.

BILL MOYERS: What would you say to those four Muslim students at that college who were so — uncertain and so apprehensive that they just didn’t want to — talk? They just want to be invisible again.

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Well, it’s wrong to be invisible because really suspicion is based on ignorance. So what you really need to do, if you don’t want people to be suspicious of you, is go out and let them know who you are. Talk to people. Tell them about your values. Tell them about your beliefs. Interact with them, make friends, don’t be invisible.

It’s hard but it’s worth it.

What is concerning me is that there is a lot of talk about how the troublemakers, the terrorists, the violent people in the Muslim community look like all the rest of us, and they are sleepers, and so on and so forth.

BILL MOYERS: A sleeper means they could be there for ten years and be activated one day by a terrorist message — and they would go out and do what—

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: They’re just —

BILL MOYERS: — Mohammed Atta and the others did.

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: But see, Mohammed Atta was never in—an American. Neither were the others. I think the American experience does something to people, that when you come to the United States, and you might come with a different perception, you might even come from these societies which feel that the U.S. has not treated them well in its foreign policy, but once you’re in the U.S. you’re under the protection of the Constitution, you’re under the umbrella of democracy; you’re sharing in all the economic…opportunities. And, you are meeting the average American who is a very decent person.

And, suddenly what you find out is that your perception of the United States is changing, and that you’re becoming an American.

I mean, when I first came to study here for a long time I did not want to become an American. I thought, you know, I’m going to study and go back home to Lebanon. I am Lebanese.

And I kept telling this to myself until I went to Lebanon and I think — and found out that I was different now; I have become an American. I didn’t even know it.

So that’s the thing we need to be thinking about, what this society, what this community does to people. You can think of sleepers, even if they send somebody as a sleeper — 10, 20 years ago — are they going to stay the same? If they came with an intention to hurt, and they saw the society the way it is, are they going to stay the same?

I think we should have confidence in who we are.

BILL MOYERS: What was there in the Muslim Islamic world view that made it hard for you to be a woman, so much so that you started this organization on women’s human rights?

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: What was really hard growing up is the interpretation of Islam I was receiving in my society. And therefore, for a while I moved away a little bit because I thought that Islam was oppressive. And —

BILL MOYERS: Oppressive.

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: I thought so, when I was younger and less wise. And then I came —

BILL MOYERS: Well, that’s the impression we lay foreigners have.

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Right. But then at one point I decided that Islam as a religion tells me that there is nobody to interpret or to intercede between me and God. I have a direct relationship with God. I can sit and pray directly to God. We do not have a —

BILL MOYERS: So, like a good Baptist?

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: We do not have a hierarchy, a religious hierarchy. So I thought if that’s the case why don’t I just grab the Quaran and read it from the heart, for myself, without having other people interpret it to me.

And when I did that I found out that I have all the rights I ever wanted, there was no reason for alienation, there was no reason at all to think that Quaran gives women a subordinate place in society. To the contrary. Except that people never — people who were of a patriarchal tendency did not see it that way.

BILL MOYERS: And you’ve had a hard time with the patriarchal — the hierarchy of Islam, haven’t you? I mean, do you go — do you go to the mosque regularly?

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Well, some mosques I’m very happy to go to because I’m received very well. In other mosques I feel I’m marginalized. So as with other faiths, you choose the mosque or the church that suits you best.

BILL MOYERS: You’ve studied the Quaran, you’ve studied the American Constitution — do you believe in the separation of church and state?

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Yes. When the Prophet established the first Muslim state, which was a city state in Medina, and it was established through the Muslims there who asked him to come and help them establish it — there were Muslims and Jews in that town. There were, as far as I know, none or very few Christians.

The first thing that the Prophet did was to put together a — basically a bill of rights, a charter between him who was chosen as the head of that city and the people of Medina, the Muslims and the Jews.

And in that charter he declares that the Muslims and the Jews are one people, but to each his own; they keep their internal beliefs, their internal behavior, etc., but then there is an overall commitment of loyalty from one to the other, very much like the federal system we have here. They have a responsibility of common defense, etc.

BILL MOYERS: If only Mohammed could see his followers now. In fact, Gandhi was once asked what’s the best thing about Christianity, and he said Jesus Christ.


BILL MOYERS: And then what’s the worst thing about Christianity. Christians — he said.

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: See, we’re all guilty of this.

BILL MOYERS: Don’t you think there’s been too much God talk —

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: That’s not tenable —

BILL MOYERS: — in American politics?

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Bill, it’s not tenable, what you’re suggesting. And I’ll tell you why. We—he’s saying we want to keep God outside politics, right? You are a person of faith. When you discuss politics don’t you think that your religious values somehow—effect as a, as a perspective your evaluation of the politics? Not in the very narrow sense we’re talking about, but in a general way.

BILL MOYERS: It does but it — then becomes lethal when I think that my religion must reign supreme and other religions — be degraded.

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: That’s the desire for power. That’s what I’m telling you. God does not need you to defend Christianity or me to defend Islam.

BILL MOYERS: And we hear this — language, this invective — this violent rhetoric that pervades not only elements of Muslim but elements of other religions as well.

How do we change the metaphors? How do we change our religious discourse?

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: I’ve been working on that. And I found out that what I thought was the basic law of the Quaran on criminal issues, I understood it wrong. I thought it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

What I didn’t realize is that people who quote the Quaran never go — to the rest of the verse which says: but forgiveness is better.

And it is this idea of forgiveness and conflict resolution that we have to bring forward in all our societies.

The only time the use of force is allowed — is for self defense, and there are statements by the Prophet, that would indicate that even in self defense sometimes it’s better to be the victim than the perpetrator of the violence. Okay?

And that therefore somehow you can teach through your being a peaceful person and refusing to be pulled into violence because somebody else pulled you.

But generally Christians, Muslims and Jews have missed a lot of this Abrahamic message in their religion.

Look at Christianity. We say turn the other cheek. When was the last time did we turn the other cheek when we got hurt?

BILL MOYERS: When you heard about the terrorists did you feel betrayed? Did you — when you heard that they had done this in the name of Allah, did you feel betrayed?

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: How do you feel about the Inquisition?

BILL MOYERS: Well, I would have felt betrayed, I think, if — I had been there. Then yes, I mean, I do. I think that somebody — hijacked God.

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: My reaction was — to, to dismiss the hyperbole, you know, the religious hyperbole and look at their actions naked as they are as political actions.

BILL MOYERS: Political actions.

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: I will not — I will not honor them.

BILL MOYERS: But they didn’t —

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: I will not honor them as religious actions.

BILL MOYERS: But they claimed it was religious.

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Yes. Yes, but more importantly there is politics that needs to be dealt with, and here is Islam which if we could explain it  to a lot of people, not just the non-Muslims — see, I’m more concerned about explaining it to Muslims, that Islam is about harmony and conflict resolution and loving your neighbor. Islam actually has very clear injunctions about your neighbor and not just your immediate neighbor, many doors down your neighbor. The reason I cannot get very far with this approach in Muslim countries, some Muslim countries — I don’t want to generalize — is because they’re going to come to me and say all right, so you’re preaching non-violence, conflict resolution and harmony. So why is your country using violence on us?

BILL MOYERS: The United States. They think the United States is using violence on them.

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Yes, yes. That our country — the principles underlying its foreign policy are totally based on the issues of force and might and military —


AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: — and military — capability, and yeah — protecting economic interests — oil, real estate.

I — really think that what we have here is a political problem, a very serious political problem, frustration, a third world issue that exploded.

BILL MOYERS: Why not — hit their own oppressive government?

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: And I agree with you — and I asked that question in my class — why didn’t they, for example, act in Saudi Arabia, especially since bin Laden says that his major concern, among others he elaborated, is the fact that there are American soldiers on the soil of Saudi Arabia in nationalist demand notice, you know, which has religious garb.

Now, I think the reason is that he didn’t feel he will be able to succeed very much in Saudi Arabia.

BILL MOYERS: Because they’re not a free society, because he has no room —

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Not only that — not only that. The perception is many of these totalitarian governments or — non-democratic or monarchies, whatever you want to call them — are protected by the United States abroad, and that if they did not have that protection they do not have the support of the people, so that in a way many people in that region see the U.S. as responsible first, for imposing on them non-democratic regimes by protecting these regimes through its intelligence and other ways, and secondly sending people like me over there to — to preach to them about democracy.

BILL MOYERS: Because they’re not a free society, because he has no room —

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: So that really makes them even more upset.

BILL MOYERS: You mean the fundamentalists…

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: I mean everybody.

BILL MOYERS: You mean the United States gets a bad — knock because it sends Azizah al-Hibri to lecture on democracy and human rights in Muslim societies?

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Well, I’ll tell you something, that the first few minutes or hours of my lecture it’s an uphill battle to make them trust me because they are so — confused and so unhappy about the role of the U.S. in their countries.

MOYERS: In Europe this week, Slobodan Milosevic went on trial for genocide.

The strongman of Serbia is accused in the slaughter of tens of thousands of Muslims and other civilians during the Balkan wars.

Issues of international justice are at the heart of a documentary to be seen next Thursday on many PBS stations.

It’s about the families of four American churchwomen who were raped and murdered during the civil war in El Salvador 20 years ago.

Here’s a clip from JUSTICE AND THE GENERALS, produced and directed by Gail Pellett.


In El Salvador the bodies of the bodies of four women were found near the airport today —

Missionary woman.

It is not known who killed them.

The circumstantial evidence security forces in El Salvador were involved in the murders —

The women were killed —

It’s a crime that shocked the world.

In a country breaking into civil war.

United States will not become bogged down in a Vietnam —

The Reagan administration trying to hault arms settlements —

I say to you tonight there can be no question of national security of all the Americas is at stake in Central America.

NARRATOR: Now two decades later the search for truth leads to the top of the military chain of command.

The search for justice to an American courtroom.

INTERVIEWEE: There are certain kinds of crime held to be so abhorrent that the people alleged to have committed them are considered the enemies of all mankind and can be brought to court wherever it is they are found.

BILL MOYERS: The kind of political oppression we just saw in JUSTICE IN THE GENERALS and chronic poverty have swelled the ranks of immigrants in this country.

Latinos are now the fastest-growing population in the nation. And in just four years they will surpass blacks as the largest minority.

And yet Latinos and their culture remain all but invisible in the popular media — except for the extraordinary efforts of filmmakers like Gregory Nava.

He’s best known for the classic film EL NORTE, a movie that told the story of a brother and sister struggling to make it to California from Central America.

Mr. Nava has made a career of ground-breaking Latino films. In 1996 he directed SELENA, based on the Latino pop star and starring Jennifer Lopez.

Now he’s making a bid to bring Latino culture further into the mainstream with his new TV series AMERICAN FAMILY — the first ever to feature an all-Latino cast. And it’s here on PBS.

Thank you very much for coming all the way across the country for this conversation.

GREGORY NAVA: Bill, it’s a real pleasure to be here.

BILL MOYERS: When you look at prime time America and see so few if any Latinos, does it make you angry? They’re invisible.

GREGORY NAVA: Well, you know, it is…obviously I think we’re reaching a point right now where Latinos are moving from the fringes into the mainstream of American life.

And our time has come right now for us to make our contribution to this country. That’s what groups always do when they come here, it’s what keeps this country ever young and ever fresh.

So it doesn’t make me angry; I just see it as a challenge. And I think that as a population and as a community we have to rise to that challenge.

BILL MOYERS: But in city after city where…where Latinos now make up the dominant plurality…


BILL MOYERS: …they surface largely in regard to this whole issue of illegal immigration.

I mean, what do you think about that?

GREGORY NAVA: Well, I mean, the United States is a country that has a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done, you know. Those crops keep coming up and somebody has to pick them, you know. And the people who do it are workers from Mexico and Central America, and unfortunately, you know, this whole system has developed of illegal labor that needs to be done.

You know, so it’s a tragic situation. You know, some people call it a modern form of slavery. I think it’s probably the biggest social issue that this country needs to deal with, and yet strangely in our media it’s the source of tremendous drama and incredible stories, yet it does get largely ignored. And I think that that’s an important thing that we do need to address.

BILL MOYERS: Prime time America was virtually white until ROOTS came along, and millions of people watched ROOTS, the story of slavery and a family’s escape from slavery.

Blacks had to fight a civil rights revolution before they could get equal time…


BILL MOYERS: …in prime time.

Are Latinos going to have to do the same thing?

GREGORY NAVA: But television was kind of born on a Latino show, I always say, because…

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

GREGORY NAVA: Well, if you were doing a show right now about a Latino married to a non-Latino and had a cross-cultural relationship it would be big news, oh, my gosh, you know.

But that’s I LOVE LUCY. I mean, Desi Arnaz…

BILL MOYERS: Touché. I’d forgotten all about that.

GREGORY NAVA: You know, he invented the three-camera sitcom format.

So Latinos have been on TV before…

BILL MOYERS: Well, when I look at AMERICAN FAMILY, I think hey, that could be the Moyers family. That could be my family…growing up on Long Island except that I liked bacon and eggs and Jess Gonzalez likes tortillas for breakfast.

Let’s take a look at an excerpt.

JESS GONZALEZ: I’m missing a dollar. I’m missing a dollar.

Turn that music down.

Go up stairs and make your sister turn the music off.

CONRADO GONZALEZ: Turn the music down!

JESS GONZALEZ: I am missing a dollar.

Turn it down.

I been saving, had 6.75 in here.

Oh, know, you know why because I came up with a great idea. Great idea.

Eight-track tapes.

That’s right, you say eight-track tapes. They don’t make them anymore.

Look at Chicanoes don’t buy new cars, they buy used cars, 68, 69’s, 70s Impalas, what do they have eight track tape players.

Where they going to get the tapes? Get them at Jesse’s Barber Shop.

That’s right. The most extensive collection of eight-track tapes anywhere in east L.A. That is a good idea.


Pablito! You leave those birds alone.

JESS GONZALEZ: Someone took my dollar. Any time there is anything missing in this house Esteban did it.

BERTA GONZALEZ: He didn’t do it.

JESS GONZALEZ: How do you know he didn’t do it?

You took it. You took my dollar?

GREGORY NAVA: Basically I think that the human experience is universal. And as a filmmaker that’s what I’ve…in EL NORTE, MI FAMILIA, SELENA, and now with AMERICAN FAMILY that’s what I’ve always put in the front seat, is the universality of the human experience. You know, I’m just trying to tell stories. I see myself as a storyteller.

BILL MOYERS: You’re not preaching.

GREGORY NAVA: No! You know, all that stuff needs to go in the back seat. And the humanity needs to be in the front seat. That’s really what it’s all about.

BILL MOYERS: His daughters…their daughters…


BILL MOYERS: They like capuccino, he likes his tortillas for breakfast.

Are Latinos making that fast a transition, from tortillas in the morning to capuccino in the afternoon?

GREGORY NAVA: Well, the thing about the Latino culture is that we assimilate very, very quickly.

I mean, we’re here for a reason: people want to assimilate into the United States. American popular culture is extremely seductive. And so…


GREGORY NAVA: Well, I mean, everywhere you go in the world people are wearing jeans. You know, when I go to Italy, you know, you see kids with, you know, United States Air Force on their bookbags.

I mean, our culture is very, very pervasive all over the world.

BILL MOYERS: We absorb everything, don’t we?

GREGORY NAVA: Yes, we absorb everything…and that’s one of the strengths of American pop culture.

One of the reasons that it’s so seductive is that you know, it’s true that tortillas are a traditional Mexican dish, but now they’re becoming all over the United States as well, you know…

We love to absorb all of that. So I think that the process of assimilation is kind of a two-way street.

BILL MOYERS: And yet there is a price. There’s something ruthless about American society that…that enhances…that makes it a good place for the strong but very difficult on the weak.

GREGORY NAVA: Yes, the United States can be a very cruel and cold place. And for people from traditional cultures [that’s] harsh. You know, people come here in order to survive, to make a living.

And they see, you know, money, as being what they’re looking for, but they don’t realize the spiritual values or the community values that they may lose when they get here. And a lot of what happens to the immigrants who come to the United States can be very, very heartbreaking and very tragic.

BILL MOYERS: I think the most poignant scene in EL NORTE, the first of your films that I ever saw, and I’m sure the first a lot of people saw, the most poignant scene to me is when Enrique the brother…


BILL MOYERS: He’s told, you can make it here, but you’ve got to make it on your own. You have to forget your sister.

GREGORY NAVA: That’s right. That’s right. The breaking of the family bond.

You know, the rugged individual as opposed to the community. That’s what the United States is all about, and that’s something that I think cuts at the heart of a lot of people who come here especially from Latin America where family and community is number one.

BILL MOYERS: Well, let’s look at this scene and then you tell me what’s happening there. You tell me what is happening in the scene.

MOCTE: Enrique.

Hello, I spoke to the guy from chicago last night. She is still interested in you. For what reasons, I don’t know.

She says she can get you a green card.

That’s right. You work for her one year or two and you can be legal.

ENRIQUE: I don’t believe it.

MOCTE: That’s right. I’m going to call her right now. Go.

Still thinking about Rosa? Wake-up, man. The dream only comes by once. This is it for you. You can be legal. This is the opportunity of your life.

What is the big damn deal? You go to Chicago. Rosa stays here. They will starve to death — she won’t starve to death.

What is so damn important? You think you are the only one that has to leave family behind? It happens all the time. I get babies left her when their mothers get picked up by immigration. I have to take them to the orphannage. Who knows what happens to them.

We are talking about survival. You understand, kid? Survival.

ENRIQUE: I know how to survive in El Norte. I want to believe I will. But —

MOCTE: You won’t take the job?

ENRIQUE: No, I can’t.

BILL MOYERS: It’s kind of Sophie’s Choice.

GREGORY NAVA: Yes. Yes, that’s right. It is. It is very, very much so.

BILL MOYERS: Is that reality as emotionally difficult for the individual as you make it on the screen?

GREGORY NAVA: Yes, definitely. Absolutely.

And I think that’s one reason why Latino storytelling is so rich and wonderful right now, because our culture is a culture that is in transition. It’s a culture that is volcanic.

And that’s when great stories come from, and that’s one of the reasons why I think that the AMERICAN FAMILY series, you know, is so exciting, because on one level it’s a show that is, you know, about an American family that’s like any American family, and yet on another level it is about a culture that is in transition.

And so this very strong and powerful drama that you see in the…you know, in the show as well.

BILL MOYERS: So often you have taken this theme of the pursuit, of the struggle, the journey north, the single individual, brother and sister, trying to get here and make it. What is there about that struggle that you keep…brings you back to it over and over again?

GREGORY NAVA: Well, you know, I think that…. I like the idea of this tremendous journey that people I think are on, you know, like going from Guatemala to the United States to work.

And in the movie EL NORTE, that becomes a mythic journey. Okay? All of the work that I do, I try to have a strong mythic underpinning to it.

BILL MOYERS: And by mythic you mean…?

GREGORY NAVA: Yes, we are all on a journey in our life, right? Everybody is looking for the promised land in some way, shape or form.

And that journey takes place in two ways: the outer journey, you know, your journey to try to find a better life, your journey to try to, you know, make a better career. And then the inner spiritual journey mirrors that.

And in pre-Colombian thinking, that is what we see. You know, your life, what you do in your life, you know, I’m very, very big on pre-Colombian mythology and pre Colombian spirituality. And the work that I do, I always try to infuse with that.

And in that world there were no monasteries. They had no retiring from life to find God. To the ancient Toltecs and the ancient Mayans you find God in the work that you do, in what you do in your life.

Work was sacred. And so what you do is your spirituality. And so in a sense I try to always reflect that in the films and stories I tell.

So these journeys that people go on with their life, how they’re going to live their life, how they’re going to survive, also becomes a spiritual journey of whether or not they’re going to be able to find themselves or lose themselves.

BILL MOYERS: We know what happened to pre Colombian culture after Christopher Columbus got here. It was wiped out. And we know what happened to Enrique and Rosa after they got to California from Guatemala. They were disillusioned, disappointed. I mean, I like the fact that you don’t romanticize.

GREGORY NAVA: The experience of EL NORTE, the United States, is a bittersweet experience. You know, it gives us what we want and at the same time it is disappointing and it is a struggle. And so that…that bittersweet emotion is what I’m always trying to achieve in the stories that I tell.

Obviously for Rosa and Enrique in EL NORTE who are new arrivals here it’s one thing…for somebody like Jess Gonzalez whose family has been here for a long time and he’s been a World War…I mean, excuse me, a Korean war veteran, et cetera, the bittersweetness, you know, plays itself out at a different level.

BILL MOYERS: Were you born here?

GREGORY NAVA: Yes, I was born in the United States. I was born in San Diego. I was raised at the exact point where these two worlds clash and come into conflict.

And in San Diego in Tijuana there’s no river or no mountain no border, it’s just a fence and a field. And yet this is the only place in the world where the first and third world meet, is in the border between the United States and Mexico.

And it is a volcanic enormous clash of cultures that is creating culture and creating tremendous change. And ever since I was a child I saw this. I saw the comings and goings of people like Rosa and Enrique, ever since I was a little boy.

BILL MOYERS: So you didn’t just make it up.

GREGORY NAVA: I didn’t just make it up, you know. And a young boy, a six year old or seven year old, asks himself, you know, why does this exist? Why do you have this fence and one side of the fence is this squeaky clean Republican city of San Diego, and on the other side of the fence is this tremendous, you know, poverty and…you know, and shantytowns. You know, why is all this, you know, child…

BILL MOYERS: Why is it…what’s your answer?

GREGORY NAVA: Well, my answer, being a poet, you know, and a storyteller, is a human one, you know. I’m interested in all the politics, and I’m interested in all the sociology, and I’m interested in all of…and the history and all of those things.

But to me the most important thing is the humanity that is in the forefront of all of this. I don’t think that you can really understand this situation unless you understand the heart and the soul of the people who are going through it.

BILL MOYERS: I go back and forth in my own mind between united we stand…and viva la difference.

You know, I mean, are Latinos going to disappear into the melting pot?\

GREGORY NAVA: Well, I think that Latinos already have. I mean, a lot of them already have disappeared into the melting pot.

BILL MOYERS: I am the melting pot, you could say.

GREGORY NAVA: Yes, you know.

But in the same way that Italian-Americans or Irish-Americans or any other, you know, Swedish-Americans or any other group have disappeared into the melting pot. You know, we all preserve to a certain extent our cultures.

And as we talked about before, those cultures become part of American pop culture. I mean, my gosh, what would life in the United States be without African-American culture?

This is a slave culture, but think of jazz and all the musical forms and all of the wonderful contributions that African-Americans have made. And we couldn’t imagine what life would be here without it. And I think Latinos as well.

So the process of assimilation, that we talked about before, Bill, is a two-way street. And I think that all of these things make the United States a stronger, more wonderful place.

And I might add, a forever young because new groups keep coming here and then new groups keep making their contribution.

BILL MOYERS: At the law school, at the University of California…where you live in Los Angeles, with about 1,000 students, there are separate student associations for Latinos, Blacks and Asians, each with their own law review journal.

Aren’t we moving toward a kind of demographic Balkanization in this country where each of us lives our voluntarily segregated lives and we lose what scholar Todd Gitlin calls the common dream. He says we’re in the twilight of common dreams because we’re retreating into our own chosen segregation.

GREGORY NAVA: I don’t agree with that. I think that the struggle about being an American is that the American ethos and culture and pop culture is so strong, so pervasive, so overwhelming, that these groups are small attempts for people to hang on a little bit to the beautiful traditions from the cultures that they come from because they have been so overwhelmed and so assimilated.

One thing that I’ve noticed is that the process of assimilation takes place very, very quickly, very fast. People are always talking about how, oh, my gosh, you know, people only speak Spanish, but the truth of the Latino culture in the United States is that families lose Spanish very, very quickly. By the third generation it’s gone, and it’s very hard to teach your kids Spanish or get them to learn the language.

So I think that these groups grow up because people feel something is being lost too quickly, and as opposed to retreating into Balkanization, I think that we’re hurdling toward, you know, a complete assimilation into the mass American culture.

BILL MOYERS: What do you make, Gregory, as an American, in the aftermath of 9/11, what do you make of the fact that to so many people in the world, America is a refuge. And yet around the world America is also hated by others. What do you make of that duality?

GREGORY NAVA: Well, you know, I think that it is part and parcel of the same thing. The fact that the United States became a refuge for the wretched of the world, you know? All of these people came from all over the world, people that nobody wanted.

And yet the human potential that was in this incredible population was enormous and it created the most powerful society in the world. And any society that is in that position of power is in some ways going to become the policeman of the world and thereby do things that maybe aren’t so wonderful and excite a lot of hatred.

So again, it’s this…it’s this circular process of the position that we’re in. As an American there’s so much…you know, I love America. And there’s so much about this country that I absolutely adore and embrace.

And yet there are also things about this country that I’m quite ashamed of. And yet this society offers us the opportunity to point that out.

As a matter of fact, we must point that out in order for the nation to say…to stay strong. So, all of these things are reasons why, you know, I love this country, and I love telling stories about it.

BILL MOYERS: I really appreciate you being here, and I’ll see you next Wednesday night at eight o’clock on AMERICAN FAMILY on PBS. Thank you very much.

GREGORY NAVA: Thank you so much, Bill.

NARRATOR: Now a look at stories coming up on NPR radio this weekend.

LISA SIMEONE: Hi, I’m Lisa Simeone.

Saturday and Sunday night, ride shotgun with writer John Ridley as he debates superhero psychosis with comic connoisseurs at the Golden Apple Book Store, slide down the slopes in Salt Lake City with Olympic ski stars and join T. C. Boyle as he curses the darkness in his new short story collection AFTER THE PLAGUE.

Tune in.


Everybody loves a winner. The case in point is our man in charge: George W. Now here’s a guy who was the punchline to every late-night monologue before he even took the oath of office.

And once he had, the press didn’t know whether to spill more ink over his malapropisms or his lack of agenda. But that was before September 11th, before the American military did in Afghanistan in a month what the Soviet war machine failed to do in ten years. Now the President is surfing a tsunami of good will. With an approval rating that’s topping eighty percent, it’s as if the President can do no wrong.

At least, you’d think so according to the picture painted by the major media. While there’s no sport in kicking a guy just to give him a kick, it’s as if the Fourth Estate has done a one-eighty on the President. They may not exactly be his cheerleaders, but it is seems as though they’re afraid to question his policies for fear of inciting his mass of adoring fans. According to a study done by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, during the war in Afghanistan, only one in ten stories done by magazines, televisions or newspapers, quoted anyone who was critical of the war effort. It’s as though the press was afraid that any skepticism would make them seem soft for the other side.

Beyond the war, the administration’s other policies – which lack a certain amount of sex appeal even in the best of times – gets curious little scrutiny in the media. There’s hardly any talk of Bush pulling out of the ABM treaty with Russia, the billions of dollars he’s going to spend on a missile defense system, no matter that our newest enemies like to attack us with our own airplanes. The President’s proposed budget gets swallowed whole. The deficit that it’ll probably ring up seems to go down easier when portrayed as being essential to helping protect American lives.

Now I’m not trying to imply that the press owes the President a pants-down spanking for everything that he says. But the party line I can get from the White House Press Secretary. When did it become un-American to ask tough questions and expect reasonable answers? What’s the point of fighting for the values of a free press if nobody’s willing to use it?

BILL MOYERS: Okay, John Ridley, we hear you. And thanks for the reminder.

But all of you have First Amendment rights, too. So tell John Ridley what you think of what he thinks.

Go to and sound off.

It’s the least a patriot can do.

For NOW, I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on March 19, 2015.

  • submit to reddit