Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

It’s Time to Stop Using the ‘Fire in a Crowded Theater’ Quotation

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Something I didn’t know, explained in the Atlantic by Trevor Timm, who works on free speech and government transparency issues at the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

Ninety-three years ago, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote what is perhaps the most well-known — yet misquoted and misused — phrase in Supreme Court history: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

Without fail, whenever a free speech controversy hits, someone will cite this phrase as proof of limits on the First Amendment. And whatever that controversy may be, “the law”–as some have curiously called it–can be interpreted to suggest that we should err on the side of censorship. Holmes’ quote has become a crutch for every censor in America, yet the quote is wildly misunderstood.

The latest example comes from New York City councilmen Peter Vallone, who declared yesterday “Everyone knows the example of yelling fire in a crowded movie theater,” as he called for charges against pseudonymous Twitter @ComfortablySmug for spreading false information during Hurricane Sandy. Other commentators have endorsed Vallone’s suggestions, citing the same quote as established precedent.

In the last few years, the quote has reared its head on countless occasions. In September, commentators pointed to it when questioning whether the controversial anti-Muslim video should be censored. Before that, it was invoked when a crazy pastor threatened to burn Qurans. Before that, the analogy was twisted to call for charges against WikiLeaks for publishing classified information. The list goes on.

But those who quote Holmes might want to actually read the case where the phrase originated before using it as their main defense. If they did, they’d realize it was never binding law, and the underlying case, U.S. v. Schenck, is not only one of the most odious free speech decisions in the Court’s history, but was overturned over 40 years ago.

First, it’s important to note . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 November 2012 at 3:18 pm

Posted in Daily life, Government, Law

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