But would you let someone shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre?

by Sean Gabb

This is the question that every advocate of free speech has at some time been asked. It may be one of the most tired clichés of political debate. It may indeed seem one of the most tiresome. But its continued popularity, and the air of finality with which it is unfailingly produced, do indicate that it expresses a very common belief - that the free expression of ideas may result in harm to others, and should therefore be restricted. And for this reason it merits at least a brief answer. Would I, then, let someone shout “Fire” in a crowded theatre? Or, to dive the question a more personal form, would I consider myself free so to shout? I can think of two replies.

First, we consider the matter purely on its own facts - which, though not entirely satisfying, does provide a technically sufficient answer. Every time that I go into a theatre or other similar place of entertainment, I enter into a contract with the management. I am to be entertained in a certain manner. In turn, I am to pay an entrance fee and abide by the rules of the house. To say that I do not specifically promise anything, nor ever see a copy of these house rules, is no proper argument. Assent to them is so obvious and reasonable a requirement of me that, for any legal purposes, it may be taken for granted on my buying a ticket and going in and I need only ask to be shown a copy of them. One of the rules will almost certainly be that I do not cause or participate in any disturbance within the theatre liable to endanger life, property or the enjoyment of other patrons. In that no one compels my attendance there, my consent, though tacit, is purely voluntary. To be sure, I have a right to speak my mind, but not to do so in breach of my freely given word. I therefore have no right to shout “Fire” in a crowded theatre.

The second reply is the genuine one. Suppose that, for whatever reason, I conceive a strong belief that the theatre I am in is on fire Perhaps I have the most sensitive nose in the audience, and I can smell burning. Or the position of my seat gives me a unique view of the spreading flames. Or my vast experience of other theatres indicates a fire by the nature of the draught playing around my feet. Grant this, and then tell me what I am to do. Certainly, to scream “Fire” and run for the nearest exit will be to start a panic which might result in injuries or deaths. But does this mean that I should sit still, patiently waiting my own death? Or should I bet up with every appearance of calm, and alone or with a few chosen friends walk out, leaving everyone else to burn?

Of course, I do no such thing. In the first instance, I make my fears plain to the management, which must, I presume, have some plan in readiness for dealing with this kind of emergency, or at least enough sense to be able to put one together at short notice. But suppose again that I have reason to believe that the management will refuse to hear me, and may throw me out - or even knock me on the head and hide me somewhere. Quite obviously, I must then use my discretion. I must communicate my fears to the rest of the audience while causing the least possible panic. This might involve walking from aisle to aisle, clearing each one at a time. Or I might force my way onto the stage and call for an orderly evacuation. But, if the progress of the fire is so advanced as to leave no time for orderly evacuations, I may well do best simply to shout “Fire” and hope that fewer people will be crushed in the panic than burned in the fire.

These are the two replies to the question. There are, however, two further points to discuss. Firstly, it must be said that, being such an extreme instance, the question hardly ever provides a fair analogy with what happens in the normal run of controversy. In the theatre, a man hears a shouted alarm. He sees others getting up and running for the exit. He may see neither the truth nor extent of the stated danger. He has no time to investigate. He is given strongly to believe that he must act at once or possibly die. If, in a crowd, he tramples someone else to death, his is not the moral responsibility that belongs to whoever has raised the alarm, and this is who will deserve punishment should the alarm have been a false one.

In the world at large, things are commonly very different. There is almost never any comparable emergency requiring instant and unthinking action. An idea is conceived and then stated, with supporting reasons given. There is no shortage of time for it to be considered, and replies to it framed or examined. Whoever acts on it immediately, and thereby attacks life or property, must, on any liberal view of human nature, be treated as entirely responsible for his actions, and not as the blind tool of someone else’s passion. The nearest case comparable to the theatre panic is that of a mob led by a demagogue. There are, of course, circumstances in which he will be liable to punishment along with those whom he may have incited to lawlessness. But, unless we are indeed to treat people as no more than irresponsible tools - in which case, why wish them free to direct their own lives or, by their votes, those of others? - This does not make out any general case for the suppression of the written word or of the temperately spoken word.

Secondly, it may be said that the question is nearly always asked by those wanting to suppress pornography or the ideas of the fascist right. The former, if at all, leads to individual assaults, hardly ever to bloodshed on a large scale. The latter, strictly defined, mean virtually nothing in the Anglo-Saxon world, and never have done. Yet if ever ideas have caused harm to others, there are those of Karl Marx. How many lives have been snuffed out this century in the name of the proletarian struggle is a number beyond my reckoning. Sixty million? A hundred million? Who knows? One thing, however, I do know. From that class of intellectuals who most often ask the above question I have never once heard it suggested that Das Kapital might be a fit subject for banning.


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