Shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater

On my fetlife profile ( I recently made a statement and a promise.  It goes like this:

I am a freedom of speech extremist, meaning that I believe that it should be fine to even shout “fire!” in a crowded theater. This is something I can back up with arguments, ask me.

So, the inevitable has just happened: someone expressed an interest in hearing those arguments.  So, I had to write them down.  Then, I thought it would be a shame if they are forever kept in a piece of private correspondence, so I decided to post them here.

Please keep in mind that this is only a first draft of my thoughts; it only took me oh, about 2 hours to write, and I normally would invest a lot longer time to write text of that length, so it is still rather unpolished.  I will probably revise it in the future.

Here it goes:

First of all, let me begin by saying that expression (also called “speech”) is one of the most important capabilities that we, as human beings, are endowed with. I cannot vouch for whether we are intelligent or not, (many people often give me good reasons to believe that intelligence is not a universal characteristic of our species,) but I can surely agree that if there is one thing that differentiates us from animals, that’s speech. (Incidentally, some scientists agree with this point of view, and call the human brain not a “reasoning organ”, but a “language organ”.)

Anyway, speech is the way through which we can progress and make this a better world for us and for our children. Therefore, speech should be regarded as sacred, and there should be absolutely no restrictions to it. The very notion that perhaps one form of speech or another should be in any way restricted ought to be ringing alarms in our minds and causing goosebumps. Speech is, and ought to be regarded as, the ultimate good.

Now, even if we were to accept that there exists such a thing as criminal speech, it seems to me that the various forms of penalization of speech under current law in various parts of the world that I am aware of invariably violate the legal principle of proportionality between crime and punishment. In my book, in order for a punishment to be proportionate to a speech crime, the punishment would in turn have to be nothing more than speech. So, if an individual commits a speech crime, the state should be entitled at most to tell that individual how bad it was that he said such a thing. Punishing speech with imprisonment is dark age barbarianism. I hold this as a self-evident truth; you either see it the way I do, or you don’t, and there is nothing more that I can do for you to see it besides simply stating it.

Furthermore, the very idea that there ought to be some restrictions to speech is derived from the notion that there exists “speech which is indistinguishable from action”, and therefore –so they say– just as there exist actions which are criminal, so there can be speech which is criminal. This is epitomized by the popular metaphor “Shouting fire in a crowded theater”. (

According to this reasoning, someone falsely shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater is bound to cause a panic, and people are likely to die in the ensuing stampede. (This has actually happened.) Therefore, people should not be allowed to falsely shout “fire!” in crowded theaters, and by extension it has come down to people not being allowed all sorts of expressions that are rather unpopular in modern societies.

My objection to this is that I do not think that there exists such a thing as “speech which is indistinguishable from action”, in about the same way that there exists no “apricot which is indistinguishable from hydroelectric power plant”. In case this is not self-evident, let me explain a bit further.

What if it was legal to shout “fire!” in a crowded theater? Surely, if such a thing was to be legalized today, we would start losing theater-fulls of innocent people due to stampedes caused by pranksters; but what would a society look like in which people have been brought up with the understanding that any bastard may, if they so wish, shout “fire!” in a crowded theater, and it is really up to the audience to figure out for themselves whether there really is a fire before starting to panic? A very strange society it would have to be, for people would have to think for themselves! Wow, what a concept! A society which requires skepticism, critical thinking, and actually seeing with your own eyes and thinking for yourself as skills necessary for survival! As you understand, this would be a much too enlightened society, and we cannot have any of that. Instead, what we apparently prefer to have is a monster state which will supposedly look after us and will supposedly protect us from the prankster by declaring it illegal for him to play that most obvious prank on us.

While at the same time, the politicians and the priests are free to play their more subtle, perfectly legal pranks at our expense.