It's Time to Stop Using the 'Fire in a Crowded Theater' Quote

Oliver Wendell Holmes made the analogy during a controversial Supreme Court case that was overturned more than 40 years ago.

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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 U.S. v. Schenck had nothing to do with fires or theaters or false statements. Instead, the Court was deciding whether Charles Schenck, the Secretary of the Socialist Party of America, could be convicted under the Espionage Act for writing and distributing a pamphlet that expressed his opposition to the draft during World War I. As the ACLU's Gabe Rottman explains, "It did not call for violence. It did not even call for civil disobedience."

The Court's description of the pamphlet proves it to be milder than any of the dozens of protests currently going on around this country every day:

It said, "Do not submit to intimidation," but in form, at least, confined itself to peaceful measures such as a petition for the repeal of the act. The other and later printed side of the sheet was headed "Assert Your Rights."

The crowded theater remark that everyone remembers was an analogy Holmes made before issuing the court's holding. He was explaining that the First Amendment is not absolute. It is what lawyers call dictum, a justice's ancillary opinion that doesn't directly involve the facts of the case and has no binding authority. The actual ruling, that the pamphlet posed a "clear and present danger" to a nation at war, landed Schenk in prison and continued to haunt the court for years to come.

Presented by

Trevor Timm works on free speech and government transparency issues at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He has contributed to Al-Jazeera, Foreign Policy, and The Guardian.

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