A fire in the tunnel


A recent letter to the editor in The News & Observer discussed an incident at N.C. State University. Four students painted racist messages about Barack Obama in the Free Expression Tunnel on campus, setting off a debate over the limits of the First Amendment.

Here’s what the “nut graf” of the letter says:

I cherish the First Amendment as much as anyone and more than many. But in some cases, speech can and does equal shouting fire in a crowded theater. In those cases, institutional restraints may be justified.

Actually, the Constitution protects the right of someone who yells fire in a crowded theater, provided that there is indeed a fire. That’s the distinction the Supreme Court made in 1919. As Oliver Wendell 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 key word here is “falsely.” Yes, the word is often dropped when people quote Holmes. But it’s an important distinction and a piece of legal history that should be quoted accurately.

More on the “fire” analogy and the case behind it here.


One Comment

  1. Thank you! Thank you! People always get this quote from O.W. Holmes wrong, and it drives me crazy! “Falsely” is crucial.

    You SHOULD shout “fire” in a crowded theater, IF there is a fire.

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