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Why Falsely Claiming It’s Illegal To Shout Fire In A Crowded Theater Distorts Any Conversation About Online Speech

It keeps coming up, the all-too-common, and all-too-erroneous, trope that “you can’t shout fire in a crowded theater.” And it shouldn’t, because, as a statement of law, it is completely wrong. It’s wrong like saying it’s legal to rob a bank. Or, perhaps more aptly, it’s wrong like saying it’s illegal to wear white after Labor Day. Of course such a thing is not illegal. It’s a completely made-up rule and not in any way a reflection of what the law on expression actually is, or ever was. And it’s not without consequence that so many people nevertheless mistakenly believe it to be the law, and in so thinking use this misapprehension as a basis to ignore, or even undermine, the otherwise robust protection for speech the First Amendment is supposed to afford.

This post therefore intends to do two things: explain in greater detail why it is an incorrect statement of law, and also how incorrectly citing it as the law inherently poisons any discussion about regulating online speech by giving the idea of such regulation the appearance of more merit than the Constitution would actually permit. Because if it were true that no one could speak this way, then a lot of the proposed regulation for online speech would tend to make more sense and also raise many fewer constitutional issues, because if it were in fact constitutional to put these sorts of limits on speech, then why not have some of these other proposed limits too.

But the “fire in a crowded theater” trope is an unsound foundation upon which to base any attempt to regulate online speech because it most certainly is NOT constitutional to put these sorts of limits on speech, and for good reason. To understand why, it may help to understand where the idea came from to end up in the public vernacular in the first place.

Its origins date back to a little over a century ago when the Supreme Court was wrestling with several cases involving defendants having said things against government policy. In particular, President Wilson wanted the United States to enter what eventually became known as World War I, and he wanted to institute the draft in order to have the military necessary to do it. He got his way and these decisions have become part of our history, but at the time they were incredibly contentious policies, and people spoke out against them. The government found this pushback extremely inconvenient for generating the public support it needed. So it sought to silence the loudest voices speaking against it by prosecuting them for their messages.

In the case of Schenck v. U.S., the defendants had been distributing flyers encouraging young men to resist being drafted. Yes, maybe sometimes you could say such things, the Court decided in upholding their convictions, but sometimes circumstances were such that such expression was no longer permissible. And the standard the Court used for deciding whether it was permissible or not was whether the speech presented a “clear and present danger.”

But this was a decision that has since been repudiated by the Court. Even Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who himself had written the decision, soon came to believe that the standard he articulated in Schenck for what speech could be punished reached too much speech, and he said as much in his dissent in the subsequent Abrams v. U.S. case, which was another one where the defendants were being prosecuted for ostensibly interfering with the government’s wartime policy.

Over time the rest of the Court joined him in the view that the First Amendment protected far more speech than its earlier decisions had allowed. Today the standard for what speech can be proscribed is the much narrower one articulated in Brandenburg v. Ohio, which said that speech can only be prosecuted if it is intended to incite “imminent lawless action” (read: a riot). It didn’t mean provocative speech that might inflame feelings (even the speech of a KKK member was protected) but something far more precipitous. It is still left room for some speech to be unprotected, but this more restrained standard is much less likely to prohibit too much speech, as the standard from the Schenck decision had.

In the wake of this later jurisprudence limiting what speech can be punished we can today more easily see, in hindsight, how the Schenck decision let the government suppress way too much speech, which is why the courts have moved away from it. For instance, war, and even the draft, remain controversial issues, but we now expect to be able to speak against them. Moving away from Schenck has made it easier to intuitively understand that the public has the right, and must have the right, to speak against the powerful, including the government. Even if well-intentioned in its actions the government may nonetheless be wrong to do what it wants to do, and what if those intentions are not noble? The greater the impact of the action the government wants to take, the greater the need to be able to speak against it – and often the greater the government impulse to shut that speech down.

But what’s key for this discussion here is that, despite the obvious error of the Schenck decision, people are still quoting a part of it as if it were still good law, as if it were EVER good law, and as if the part they are quoting did not itself perpetuate the same fundamental mistake of Schenck and put too much speech beyond the reach of First Amendment protection – which creates its own danger.

Because it was in the Schenck decision where Justice Holmes included the casual mention about not being able to shout fire in a crowded theater. It was a line that itself was only dicta – in other words, it was never actually a statement of law but rather a separate musing used to illustrate the point of law the decision was trying to articulate. It wasn’t what the case was about, or a statement that was in any other way given the robust consideration it should have been due if it were to truly serve as a legal benchmark. After all, what if the theater was actually on fire? Would saying so be illegal? Ironically, the people getting the law wrong by citing this line also tend to cite it incorrectly, because what is often omitted from the trope is that Holmes suggested the problem would only arise by “falsely” shouting fire. But even if this criteria were to be part of the rule, might not such a rule deter people from shouting alarm even if the theater was actually burning? Justice Holmes slipped that single line in the decision as a truth, but it was one he had only just suddenly conjured out of whole cloth. Nowhere did he address the implications of such a rule, or what it would mean when history mistook it as one.

Because it is not the rule. It never was the rule. And it never, ever should be cited today as being the rule. From almost the moment it was judicially uttered it was already out of step with our understanding of what the First Amendment protects, and it has only gotten more and more detached as our understanding of the First Amendment’s protection and purpose have gotten more precise. Modern jurisprudence has made clear that it is in only the rarest exception where freedom of speech can be impinged. It is therefore legally wrong to suggest otherwise, and even more legally ignorant to use this line to do it.

Perhaps more importantly, though, even if it were the rule, it shouldn’t be. Even back in the day of firetrap theaters stuffed with flammable celluloid it was of dubious value as a rule proscribing speech because sometimes speech really needs to be said, and thus it is important – maybe even of critical importance – that such speech not be chilled. The same is no less true today. Indeed, the more contentious public discourse is, and the higher the stakes, the more important it is that everyone be free, and FEEL free, to express themselves. We can’t have people too scared to speak against misuses of power because they might run afoul of someone deciding that certain ideas should not be said. Yet it’s that fear of recrimination that often is what silences people more than any specific sanction. And it’s that fear that deprives the public of any benefit of whatever they had to say.

Which is why our understanding of the First Amendment’s protection has come to be far more broad and permissive than such a rule about crowded theaters would ever allow, because it is the only read of the Constitution that gives the First Amendment its true protective utility. When we speak of the law regarding free speech we speak of a law that understands it’s better to have too much speech, including some that is valueless, than to risk losing the speech that has value. And it’s a rule that applies just as much to speech online as off, as the Supreme Court also announced in Reno v. ACLU. All of our discussions about online speech should therefore start there, with that principle, and not around single throwaway lines from long discredited opinions that try to pretend that speech is ever so easily unprotected.

Why Falsely Claiming It’s Illegal To Shout Fire In A Crowded Theater Distorts Any Conversation About Online Speech

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