Is It Illegal to Falsely Shout 'Fire' in a Crowded Theater?

Fortunately, nobody incited a stampede at New York's Metropolitan Opera House on this night in 1937.
Fortunately, nobody incited a stampede at New York's Metropolitan Opera House on this night in 1937.
National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If you asked a few random people to name a situation that wouldn’t be protected under the First Amendment’s “freedom of speech” clause, there’s a pretty good chance at least one of them would mention the example of someone shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater (when there’s no fire). Over the last century, the scene has been used far and wide to illustrate that if your “free speech” harms people, you can still end up in the defendant’s chair. But, as is so often the case when it comes to interpreting the law, it’s really not that simple.

Panic Room

The aftermath of the Iroquois Theatre fire.Fire-Truck.Ru, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

When people first started discussing human fire alarms at packed gatherings, it was less about constitutional debate and more about societal menace. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there were dozens of tragedies [PDF]—mainly in the U.S., but also abroad—where false shouts of “Fire!” provoked panic that resulted in multiple innocent, and avoidable, deaths. In 1913, for example, residents of Calumet, Michigan, held a Christmas party for the children of copper miners on strike. Hundreds of people gathered on the second floor of Italian Hall, and when an unidentified perpetrator (possibly motivated by anti-union sentiments) yelled “Fire!” they all rushed to the stairs. The stampede claimed 73 victims, most of whom were children.

The fear of fire wasn’t unfounded. Since not all buildings had sprinkler systems, neon exit signs, and capacity limits, plenty of fatal blazes occurred. More than 600 people died in Chicago’s Iroquois Theater fire in 1903, even though (ironically) that building was actually thought to be fireproof.

In short, shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater was an idea firmly entrenched in the public consciousness by the time judges co-opted the phrase for legal arguments on First Amendment rights.

Discussing Fire in a Crowded Courtroom

We mustache Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. a question about First Amendment rights.National Photo Company, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Wikimedia Commons // No Known Restrictions on Publication

The axiom became popular in legal spheres after Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. mentioned it during Schenck v. United States in 1919, but he wasn’t the first person to use it in court. As Carlton F.W. Lawson pointed out in a 2015 article in the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, U.S. attorney Edwin Wertz had uttered a lengthier version of it the previous year while prosecuting activist Eugene Debs. In fact, since Holmes ruled on Debs’s appeal the very week after the Schenck case, he may have even gotten the idea from Wertz.

Each case involved a violation of the Espionage Act of 1917, which essentially made it punishable to do anything that interfered with U.S. military operations—including speaking out against the draft. Debs, a pacifist who opposed World War I, was under fire for a speech he had given in Ohio; and Charles T. Schenck, the U.S. Socialist Party’s general secretary, landed in front of the Supreme Court for passing out pamphlets that encouraged men to refuse the draft.

Both defendants were convicted, and Holmes justified his ruling on the Schenck case with the explanation that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a theater and causing a panic.” But while his analogy struck an emotional chord, it really had nothing to do with constitutional law.

“The ‘crowded theater’ statement in Schenck never amounted to any kind of binding standard or doctrine,” Nashwa Gewaily, a media and First Amendment lawyer, tells Mental Floss. “It was basically a bit of emotionally charged extra flair from Justice Holmes, outside the official legal determination of that case; a powerful image that endured outside its context ... It was not a high point in American jurisprudence.”

“Revengeance” Is Fine

What Holmes said after it, however, did become a standard for future free speech arguments. “The question in every case,” he said, “is whether the words are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”

For the next 50 years, clear and present danger was the accepted—and slightly vague—metric for discerning if spoken or printed material was protected speech. Then, in 1969, the Supreme Court replaced it with something clearer. The case, Brandenburg v. Ohio, concerned a Ku Klux Klan leader named Clarence Brandenburg who had broken Ohio’s law against advocating “crime, sabotage, or unlawful methods of terrorism” for political purposes. (In his offending speech, he had mentioned the possibility of “revengeance” [sic] if the federal government didn’t stop “[suppressing] the white, Caucasian race.”)

Brandenburg appealed his guilty verdict all the way up to the Supreme Court, which overturned the ruling on the grounds that his threats were too ambiguous to legally amount to more than “mere advocacy” of violence or lawbreaking. In order for speech to cross that line to incitement, it must be “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action” and “likely to incite or produce such action.”

As Gewaily explains, judges interpret this standard “far more narrowly than many would presume.” While individual institutions may condemn hate speech, for example, it's not punishable by the government as incitement unless it clears a high bar combining intent, likelihood, and immediacy of a resulting crime. And even that high bar can be subject to interpretation.

When Free Speech Is the Least of Your Worries

So, does falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater fall outside the conditions of imminent lawless action, and therefore fall under First Amendment protection? The short answer is that it depends on the circumstances. But here’s the long answer: If you get arrested for doing that, the charges brought against you might make the question of free speech totally irrelevant.

“The falsely shouted warning, while technically speech, could potentially violate a state's criminal laws against disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct, whether or not it provokes a stampede, for instance,” Gewaily says. And if there is a stampede in which somebody dies, you could be charged with involuntary manslaughter. In other words, even if there's no law in your state that explicitly prohibits you from crying “Fire” in a theater, there are other laws you might still have to worry about.

Shouting “Bomb!” or “Gun!” in public would put you in a similar situation. In May 2018, for example, officials had to evacuate part of Daytona Beach International Airport after a man ran naked through the building screaming about a bomb in the women’s bathroom. There was no bomb, but he was charged with “false report of a bomb,” “criminal mischief,” and “exposure of sexual organs,” among other things. In that case, no self-respecting lawyer would advise him to claim his actions were protected by the First Amendment.

That said, there’s good news for anyone whose panicked cry is an honest mistake. “Someone who shouts a warning in genuine error, with an intent to galvanize movement to safety, would not be properly punished for that speech,” Gewaily says.

And if Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. has taught us anything, it’s that not every word a Supreme Court Justice says automatically counts as constitutional doctrine.

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Apple
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Why Do Supreme Court Justices Serve for Life?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There are few political appointments quite as important as a nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Unlike a cabinet secretary or an ambassador, justices serve for life. In the modern era, that often means more than three decades on the court. Thanks to increased lifespans, justices appointed in the next century are expected to sit on the Supreme Court for an average of 35 years, compared to the average of around 16 years that judges served in the past. Because of this shift, some scholars have begun to question whether lifetime appointments are still appropriate, as the definition of “for life” has changed so much since the Constitution was written. But why do justices serve for life, anyway?

Well, for one thing, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t exactly specify that justices and the court are in a “’til death do us part” relationship. Article III says that judges (of both the Supreme Court and lower federal courts) “shall hold their offices during good behavior.” So technically, a judge could be removed if they no longer meet the “good behavior” part of the clause, but there are otherwise no limits on their term. In practice, this means they have their seat for life, unless they are impeached and removed by Congress. Only 15 federal judges in U.S. history have ever been impeached by Congress—all lower court judges—and only eight have been removed from office, though some have resigned before their inevitable removal.

The only Supreme Court justice Congress has tried to impeach was Samuel Chase, who was appointed by George Washington in 1796. Chase was an openly partisan Federalist vehemently opposed to Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican policies, and he wasn’t afraid to say so—either in his role as a lower court judge or once he was appointed to the Supreme Court. In 1804, the House of Representatives, at then-president Jefferson’s urging, voted to impeach Chase, accusing him, among other things, of promoting his political views from the bench instead of ruling as a non-partisan judge. However, he was acquitted of all counts in the Senate, and went on to serve as a Supreme Court justice until his death in 1811.

The point of giving justices a seat on the bench for the rest of their lives (or, more commonly nowadays, until they decide to retire) is to shield the nation’s highest court from the kind of partisan fighting the Chase impeachment exemplified. The Supreme Court acts as a check against the power of Congress and the president. The lifetime appointment is designed to ensure that the justices are insulated from political pressure and that the court can serve as a truly independent branch of government.

Justices can’t be fired if they make unpopular decisions, in theory allowing them to focus on the law rather than politics. Justices might be nominated because a president sees them as a political or ideological ally, but once they’re on the bench, they can’t be recalled, even if their ideology shifts. Some data, for instance, suggests that many justices actually drift leftward as they age.

The lack of term limits “is the best expedient which can be devised in any government, to secure a steady, upright, and impartial administration of the laws,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist No. 78. The judiciary, he believed, “is in continual jeopardy of being overpowered, awed, or influenced by its coordinate branches,” and “nothing can contribute so much to its firmness and independence, as permanency in office.” Without lifetime job security, he argued, judges might feel obligated to bow to the wishes of the president, Congress, or the public, rather than confining their work strictly to questions of the Constitution.

While lifetime appointments may be a longstanding tradition in the U.S., this approach isn’t the norm in other countries. Most other democracies in the world have mandatory retirement ages if not hard-and-fast term limits for high court judges. UK Supreme Court justices face mandatory retirement at age 70 (or 75 if they were appointed before 1995), as do judges on Australia’s High Court. Canadian Supreme Court justices have a mandatory retirement age of 75, while the 31 justices of India’s Supreme Court must retire by the age of 65. Until her passing at the age of 87 on September 18, 2020, the oldest justice on the current U.S. Supreme Court was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the oldest justice in U.S. history, retired in 1932 at age 90.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court has never had term limits before, there have recently been serious proposals to implement them. Term limits, advocates argue, could combat partisan imbalances on the court. Presidents wouldn’t get to appoint justices purely based on whether someone died while they were in office, and the stakes for political parties nominating a justice would be slightly lower, possibly leading presidents and Congress to compromise more on appointments. One popular suggestion among political analysts and scholars is to impose an 18-year term limit, though critics note that that particular plan does bring up the potential that at some point, a single president could end up appointing the majority of the justices on the court.

In any case, considering such a change would likely require a constitutional amendment, which means it’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. For the foreseeable future, being on the Supreme Court will continue to be a lifetime commitment.

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