Should shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater really be illegal?

(Another question: Should shouting “Flareon!” in a crowded theater be illegal? We know what happens with Vaporeons, for one thing.)

(Now you can see that I started writing this blog post back when Pokémon Go was still popular. Isn’t it great to just begin a blog post with evidence that it was left in the pantry as a draft for a long while?)

‘Shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater’ is the go-to example of why the freedom of speech shouldn’t be unlimited. Here, I would like to question and more closely examine this case.

I will start with a disclaimer that is seen all too often in conversations where the freedom of speech is mentioned, but is still appropriate. I’m not talking about whether shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater is a bad thing to do. I’m talking about whether it should be illegal, whether we should consider someone who does so a criminal.

The typical argument on why shouting fire in a crowded theater should not be protected by the freedom of speech is that it places surrounding individuals in danger by causing a false panic.

So let’s consider this assertion that causing a false panic should be illegal.

What exactly is a false panic? Certainly accusing the president of having faked his credentials to the presidency and suggesting its contribution to the destruction of this country counts? All the Obama birthers should now get thrown in prison, right?

Okay, but it’s still fairly unlikely that this accusation causes some unnecessary deaths, whereas it’s very possible for an ensuing stampede from a theater to kill a few people. If elevated chances of unnecessary death are the metric of evaluating a false panic, then why isn’t telling people to not get their vaccines illegal? This is a false panic that can cost quite a few lives. Is the problem that the danger will imminently manifest?

At this point, why don’t we look back to the original case where this anecdote was presented to find what was originally meant by a “false panic”?

It turns out this anecdote was first given by a judge for a comparison to why handing out anti-war flyers during World War I should not be protected under freedom of speech. That’s the offense upon which this reference was built. It is time to consider the possibility that the belief that shouting “fire” in a crowded theater should be illegal is based on an outdated mindset and ideology, one where having insufficient patriotism by expressing disapproval of a war was a punishable offense, and that the act really ought not to be illegal anymore.

Actually, though, how many people that you know will immediately believe a building’s on fire when someone shouts “fire” and not first suspect someone’s trolling? It may be sad that society has progressed to such a state, but nevertheless, this anecdote needs at least a rethinking.


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