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Anorak | Free speech: spitting on the fire in the crowded theatre

Free speech: spitting on the fire in the crowded theatre

by | 10th, January 2017

Writing in the Guardian , Sam Segman tells us that free speech is not free unless it has limits. If you want to stop reading, I can’t blame you. Free speech is so simple a thing it needs no caveats. You get it. You can go. For the rest of you still here, this is Segman:

Free speech has limits. You aren’t allowed to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre because someone’s probably going to get hurt.

You are allowed, or at least you should be. (Factoid: five minutes into Riverdance , it’s compulsory and pardonable to trigger a dash for the exit. See Sorene v In-laws 1998.) How others react to your words is where laws and consequences arise. The word itself should not be unsayable.

But Segman is just echoing a million others who have used the same example of that ‘FIRE! in the theatre to support free speech’s limits. David Miliband banned Dutch politician Geert Wilders from entering the UK in 2009. Miliband told us why: ‘We have a profound commitment to freedom of speech, but there is no freedom to cry “fire” in a crowded theatre and there is no freedom to stir up hate, religious and racial hatred.’

Free speech is only free and worth championing when the speaker is someone with whom you agree, says Miliband. Our default position should be to err on the side of censorship. How very totalitarian.

As Gabe Rottman writes, the crowded theatre line is worse than useless in defining the boundaries of constitutional speech. When used metaphorically, it can be deployed against any unpopular speech.”

Tim Black told us how the phrase became so commonplace. Taking on the role of Oliver Wendell Holmes, he writes of the man who 1919, in Schenck v United States, opined: ‘The most

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Posted: 10th, January 2017 | In: News Comment | Follow the Comments on our RSS feed: RSS 2.0 | TrackBack | Permalink