Shouting fire in a crowded theater

Shouting fire in a crowded theater

"Shouting fire in a crowded theater" is a frequent paraphrasing of a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.'s opinion in the United States Supreme Court case "Schenck v. United States" in 1919. The quote is used to express the limits on free speech under the terms of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

The "Schenck" case

Holmes, writing for a unanimous majority, ruled that it was illegal to distribute flyers opposing the draft during World War I. Holmes argued this abridgment of free speech was permissible because it presented a "clear and present danger" to the government's recruitment efforts for the war. Holmes wrote:

:"The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. [...] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent."

Holmes wrote of "falsely" shouting fire, because, of course, if there were a fire in a crowded theater, one may rightly indeed shout "Fire!". Falsely shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater, i.e. shouting "Fire!" when one believes there to be no fire in order to cause panic, was interpreted not to be protected by the First Amendment.

"Schenck" was later limited by "Brandenburg v. Ohio", which ruled that speech could only be banned when it was directed to and likely to incite imminent lawless action (e.g. a riot), the test which remains until this day. Despite "Schenck" being limited, the phrase "shouting fire in a crowded theater" has since come to be known as synonymous with an action that the speaker believes goes beyond the rights guaranteed by free speech, reckless or malicious speech, or an action whose outcomes are blatantly obvious.


Jacob Hornberger of the Future of Freedom Foundation, a libertarian think tank, has stated [ [ The Bill of Rights: Freedom of Speech ] ] that in most cases free speech issues in the U.S. depend upon whose property one is on at the time. If someone falsely shouted "fire" and created a stampede which was clearly against the wishes of a theatre owner's policy of conduct, then the theatre owner would be within his rights to prepare charges against the agitator. If, however, the theatre owner decided it would be good for business to have patrons yell "Fire! Fire!" whenever they felt like it, then he would be within his rights to do so.

The comedian Steven Wright remarked that he likes to "shout 'Fire!' in an "empty" theater".

In fiction

*In Alfred Hitchcock's 1966 film "Torn Curtain", the main characters are trapped by the Stasi in an East Berlin crowded theater. Professor Armstrong (Paul Newman) then shouts "Fire!" and manages to escape in the ensuing chaos.
*A MAD Magazine cartoon of the 1960s had an old lady as the victim of a mugging in which she cries for help as she is being mugged, to which the mugger tells her she can yell all she wants as people couldn't care less about each other. She then proceeds to cry "Fire! Fire!", which suddenly results in a large number of tenants appearing with fire extinguishers, and the mugger having to run away to avoid detection.
*The film "Amazing Grace and Chuck" makes reference to the term when the protagonist, Chuck, in his protest of nuclear weapons, is meeting with the fictional President of the United States. The President tells Chuck that the First Amendment right to free speech is indeed a cherished freedom and cannot be revoked, but it does not grant him the right to yell fire in a crowded theatre, to which Chuck rhetorically asks "But what if there "is" a fire, sir?"

See also

* Crying wolf


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