‘Shouting Fire’ by Dr. Larry Burriss


I’m always amazed at how two people can take the same set of facts and come to two different conclusions. Or use the same set of facts to prove opposite conclusions.
So you would think an opinion by the United States Supreme Court would be the final word about any legal issue. But even a simple 22-word sentence can multiple meanings, especially if someone wants to deliberately misquote what the Court actually said.
We’re probably all familiar with the famous Supreme Court quote about shouting fire in a theater.


Well, I heard that quote a lot during last week’s Congressional hearings about censorship. Hearing where they tried to censor at least one witness.
Anyway, a couple of the senators, promoting censorship, kept using the famous quote, noting the Supreme Court had said you can’t shout fire in a crowded theater.

The argument seemed to be not all speech is protected, and the Court was supporting at least some kinds of censorship.
Except that’s not what the Court said, at least not completely.

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The exact quote is “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”
Notice there are two parts here: false speech that causes panic.
Truthful speech is protected no matter what, and only false speech causing a panic is proscribed. No panic, no punishment.

Fortunately, numerous court decisions, from the lowest to the highest, have failed to find a causal connection and between speech and bad results.
Of course, if you only cite part of the quote, it makes it sound as though some, perhaps many, kinds of speech can be suppressed.
In the case of the recent Congressional hearings, the “false” part was the ever controversial Covid vaccinations and restrictions.

Notice also the “panic” part of the theory. While it’s true all kinds of speech can make people upset, panics are generally public, and I don’t recall any kind of speech causing the general public to respond in a panic.
But here’s the lesson to be learned: even when you hear someone quoting almost anything, make sure they are using the actual statement in the way the speakers intended.
I’m Larry Burriss.