Shouting “Fire!” in a Crowded Theater


In 1919 the United States Supreme Court in Schenck v. United States issued a unanimous decision about what the first amendment does not cover.  It was Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. who said that freedom of speech does not include falsely shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater.  That has been paraphrased into the deletion of the word “falsely” but the principle still applies.  It was construed to mean that speech designed to inflame or incite for no useful purpose was not protected by the first amendment.

Oh, Oliver!  Where are you when we need you?  We have been struggling with this concept for decades.  In 1964, a radical by the name of Mario Savio, among others, started what became known as the Free Speech Movement or FSM for short.  It began at the University of California, Berkeley and was partly responsible for the pejorative of the time of “UC, Beserkly.”

There was a lot more to it than simply being able to say whatever you wanted to say, regardless of its offensiveness, lack of purpose, or inflammatory nature.  They also wanted to end the UC ban against on-campus political rallies and establish more academic freedom.  The movement in various forms spread to campuses nationwide and found a new home in the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations.

 It was a time when liberty morphed into license in the name of a constitutional right.  We are still dealing with the first amendment and the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is but the latest.  It said, “Money Talks” so corporation campaign contributions cannot be restricted because of first amendment protection.  That may well have a major influence on November 6.

How does all that play into the disastrous week we have just been through in the explosion of anti-American protests in 23 countries?  Here’s a humorous example of how times have changed since that 1919 Supreme Court decision.  James Thurber was a famed journalist of that era.   He once wrote a piece about a crazy man who lived in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.  Every so often the crazy man would show up in a crowded theater and shout, “Get ready!  Get ready!  The woorrlldd is coming to an end!!!”  He became known as “The Get Ready Man” and he was routinely escorted from the movie; no one paid any attention to him.

The problem today is that anyone, even “The Get Ready” man, has an instant and world-wide audience.  While the people of Columbus had the good sense to ignore him, consider the mustachioed “reverend” from Florida and his Qur’an burning.  He nearly incited a major catastrophe because of the media coverage.

Somewhere in the world, there will always be people who will find any message suitable/objectionable as long as it fits their particular set of beliefs.  No sensible person would argue that we could or should try to control anyone’s beliefs, even if they have no useful purpose according to our standards.  The trouble comes when those with widely different beliefs interpret a message as an attack on them and then launch an attack on whoever they perceive as the enemy.

 The violence as a result of a clumsy attempt in a “movie” to portray Muhammad in an unfavorable light shows what a hair trigger can do.  I suspect that the vast majority of the Islamic world is as horrified as we are at the reaction of a few.  But in the time of the Internet, YouTube, and all the instant telecommunication there will be some who take extreme action.  It’s no longer just a crowded theater where words can explode; the whole crowded world can explode.

With freedom comes liberty and the line between that and license is not distinct.  We must rely on clear-headed thinking before leaping to the conclusions of self-justification that lead to violence.  Let’s hope the world can do that and not be led by extremists, regardless of who they are, what they believe, or where they live.

Hayden Hollingsworth