Free Speech Pro-Tip: You Can Yell Fire In A Crowded Theatre

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Free Speech Pro-Tip, By Techdirt

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No discussion about free speech gets very far without someone busting out the idea that "you can't yell fire in a crowded theatre". It's a phrase that's irritated actual free speech experts for years: it adds nothing to the discussion, and it's not even true — there are plenty of times when you can (not the least of which being if the theatre is actually on fire!) Moreover, the phrase itself is a relic of an old, awful, and overturned Supreme Court ruling that put someone in jail for criticizing the mandatory military draft in the First World War. The inimitable Ken White dug into the phrase's uselessness and horrible legacy in a 2012 Popehat post and, more recently, an episode of the Make No Law podcast.

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  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Dan J., 14 Aug 2018 @ 11:11am

    " It's a phrase that's irritated actual free speech experts for years..." Then those so called experts need to get a friggin' clue. Yes, you can shout "Fire!" in a theatre if the place is actually on fire or if you're in a play, etc. You can shoot someone if they're trying to shoot you first. Hell, you can even drop an atomic bomb on a city if you're in a war and have been legally ordered to do so. Outside of physics, nothing is absolute. The phrase clearly refers to causing a panic by falsely convincing people their lives are in danger when they are in fact not in danger. If you object to that, your pedantic ass needs to get a life.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Leigh Beadon (profile), 14 Aug 2018 @ 11:21am

      Re:

      You should consider reading the Popehat post discussing the phrase in more detail.

      The point is that even if it's taken at its most limited meaning which you describe, it still **adds nothing** to a debate about free speech. It **says nothing** about limitations on *other* forms of speech. And invoking it to support calls for other limitations on speech is sloppy and dangerous - as evidenced by its original usage, which was to put someone in jail for distributing pamphlets that opposed the mandatory military draft. Yes, that's the original "yelling fire" - writing a pamphlet that criticizes the government.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Wnt, 17 Aug 2018 @ 1:24pm

        Re: Re:

        I was going to tell them this, but you beat me to it. That bogus metaphor was their excuse for taking a PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE (Eugene Debs) and throwing him in jail for HIS POLITICAL BELIEFS. In order to make the world safe for the ultra rich to have poor people of all nationalities rounded up and sent to die by poison gas while pretending they were at war with each other --- when in fact the only threat to their lives was the rich elite that drafted them!

        The big joke is that, even in the early 1900s, people who falsely yelled "Fire!" almost NEVER had legal problems. Why? Because they said they smelled smoke, or they heard someone else yell it first. Law enforcement was *never* effective against this, even with a censorship doctrine to back it up.

        The only sane answer was, and is, to provide good exits, good design, a good evacuation plan. And NEVER let people get away trying to excuse censorship without a retort. Censorship and lies are inseparable twins, never found parted one from the other.

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        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 31 Aug 2018 @ 3:31am

          Re: Re: Re:

          People also cite slander, defamation as first amendment restrictions. In the US the government can not charge those, they are civil remedy where harm must have occurred and where the harm must be proved, and the only sanction that occurs is on the person who caused the proven harm

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mike Masnick (profile), 14 Aug 2018 @ 11:23am

      Re:

      If you object to that, your pedantic ass needs to get a life.

      No one is objecting to that. What they're objecting to is the regular use of that phrase to stifle legally protected speech, including in the very case that the line comes from (putting someone in jail for protesting the draft).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 14 Aug 2018 @ 11:33am

        Re: Re:Draft

        "Protesting" the draft by handing out pamphlets urging changes to the draft laws - which wouldn't even be considered a thing. (If I remember that case correctly?)

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 31 Aug 2018 @ 3:34am

        Re: Re:

        the phrase is often used by gun an/control lobbyists to claim there are similar limits on the first amendment. But these s called limits on the first amendment are against an individual, and only after a harm has been proven, and civil not criminal. There are no "pre-crime" proir restraints.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Thad (profile), 14 Aug 2018 @ 12:12pm

      Re:

      You should read more than two sentences into an article before you comment on it.

      I know what you're thinking -- "Read more than two sentences? Who has time for that?" But, my friend, I have some amazing news for you: taking time to read past the second sentence actually saves you time. For example, if you'd read the third and fourth sentence of this article, why, you wouldn't have had to spend any of the time it took you to compose your reply!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      jameshogg (profile), 15 Aug 2018 @ 6:58am

      Re:

      "The phrase clearly refers to causing a panic by falsely convincing people their lives are in danger when they are in fact not in danger."

      Dumb fire drills. Always putting lives in danger.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Al Malgamated, In Dustry, Ohio, 14 Aug 2018 @ 11:40am

    No. Context is always: FALSE report intended taken for real.

    Skip all your legalistic sophistries and show it in reality, kid: set up live video upload from another person, then YOU go into a crowded theater without advance notice and so on, in every way making a FALSE report as if real. -- We'll be able to enjoy you being hauled off to JAIL, likely for your own protection after the crowd beats you up, and even if loosed from criminal charge, the theater owner will have civil cause for lost revenue.

    Okay? Then, go to it! You've got a RIGHT, exercise it!


    Sheesh. This LONG-RUNNING series based on CHILDISH assertions only shows that are perverse little fiends trying for "look at me!", and truly believe they're a form of royalty above common law.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      I.T. Guy, 14 Aug 2018 @ 11:58am

      Re: No. Context is always: FALSE report intended taken for real.

      Wilbur... you are such an idiot. No really Bruh, your Id is waaaaay off. Nice way to make a figurative a literal. Not surprised you don't get it.

      How's Brandy and the baby? Hopefully your genetics take a back seat to hers.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      hij (profile), 14 Aug 2018 @ 12:01pm

      Re: No. Context is always: FALSE report intended taken for real.

      If only the article above had a link to a nuanced and logical explanation of the problems associated with using that quote in contexts that it does not belong. Some historical context as to why it is overused and not helpful would be good to.


      You know who should do something like that? That Popehat guy. He is good at that sort of thing. We should ask him nicely....

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Ninja (profile), 14 Aug 2018 @ 12:44pm

        Re: Re: No. Context is always: FALSE report intended taken for real.

        He also needs to define what the heck common law and natural law means because at the very least he won't look like a complete lunatic like he does when he starts swinging these empty words around.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 14 Aug 2018 @ 12:45pm

          Re: Re: Re: No. Context is always: FALSE report intended taken for real.

          He can't. The image is different every time he gets out of bed. I was going to say wake up, but that isn't actually clear.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 16 Aug 2018 @ 5:50pm

        Re: Re:

        You're not going to get out_of_the_blue to do that. Popehat regularly wrote about and criticized Prenda Law. That puts him in blue boy's ultimate shit list...

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Stephen T. Stone (profile), 14 Aug 2018 @ 12:22pm

      Yet here you are, throwing a temper tantrum because a “childish” blog said something with which you disagree, because…maturity, I guess?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 14 Aug 2018 @ 12:41pm

      Re: No. Context is always: FALSE report intended taken for real.

      The Government cannot preempt any speech, including yelling "fire!" in a crowded theater but you will face the consequences if you do it.

      That's the point you fail miserably to understand when talking about free speech. It's about not letting the government control what speech is allowed and to reach such goal you must not prevent any kind of speech be it hateful or that endangers others.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Dark Helmet (profile), 14 Aug 2018 @ 12:57pm

      Re: No. Context is always: FALSE report intended taken for real.

      Christopher Hitchens literally did this. Famously so. There's even video of it.

      You're an idiot.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 14 Aug 2018 @ 2:47pm

      Re: No. Context is always: FALSE report intended taken for real.

      Wow! Who knew every fire department has an intercom wired directly into every movie theatre such that a person yelling in the theatre is making an official report of a fire!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bergman (profile), 15 Aug 2018 @ 1:19pm

      Re: No. Context is always: FALSE report intended taken for real.

      The problem is that the origin of the quote about shouting fire wasn't a false report.

      The guy it was said about was an anti-war protestor distributing pamphlets asking people to vote to change the laws that permitted mandatory military service. That's it.

      If it were in fact illegal to do that sort of thing, then it would be impossible to run for any elected office that had an incumbent, because it would be sedition against the existing official.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    carlb, 14 Aug 2018 @ 6:36pm

    Yes, but may I cry "movie!" in a crowded firehall? (n/t)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Aug 2018 @ 6:48pm

    WOW Guess none of those above will be buying a tee shirt

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 15 Aug 2018 @ 1:10am

      Re:

      Why don’t you offer black face masks that say “No USA At All!”. I think they would have a better chance being popular among your small circle of supporters. Maybe give them away for free just to promote your fundamental message, that might attract all 20 like minded people that exist in the US.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Aug 2018 @ 8:04am

    Does it also say “I’m a Douche, Kick Me” on the back?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Bergman (profile), 15 Aug 2018 @ 1:21pm

    It's worth noting...

    That if there actually is a fire, not sounding an alarm is negligent homicide, and stopping someone from sounding an alarm is second degree murder if anyone dies in the ensuing fire.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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