Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton said that Americans are taught that they do not have the right to yell “fire” in a crowded theater during a disinformation panel on Tuesday at the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) week-long meeting in Davos, Switzerland, despite constitutional experts debunking the claim.
Tuesday’s panel, titled The Clear and Present Danger of Disinformation, discussed how “the public, regulators and social media companies” can work together to “tackle disinformation,” according to the WEF website. During the panel, Moulton said that Americans are taught that they cannot shout “fire” in a crowded theater.
“This concept of preserving public safety, even under the banner of free speech, is actually something that we’ve accepted for a long time,” Moulton said. “We get taught in grade school the concept of ‘yes, you’re allowed free speech but not crying fire in a crowded theater.’”
In a Davos panel on “disinformation,” @RepMoulton says that Americans learn in grade school that “yelling fire in a crowded theater” is not protected free speech. While Americans may learn it, this is not true. @DailyCaller https://t.co/gx0YkoWjU3 pic.twitter.com/iqbsfW0aNR
— Ailan Evans (@AilanHEvans) January 17, 2023
The quote, which is commonly used to argue for speech limitations, is misconceived, according to Greg Lukianoff, president and CEO of free speech watchdog Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), and Nadine Strossen, FIRE senior fellow and former American Civil Liberties Union president. The pair argue that shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is only illegal if the claim is false.
“To the contrary, if the theater is on fire, you not only may shout ‘FIRE,’ but indeed, you should do so,” Strossen wrote in an October 2021 article clarifying the phrase. “The constant misstatement of this famous line from a 1919 Supreme Court decision is significant, because it overlooks the critical, common-sense distinction between protected and unprotected speech.”
Strossen explained that the quote should read ““falsely shout[s] fire in a theatre and caus[es] a panic” to make the distinction between protected and unprotected speech. She clarified that the government can only infringe on speech if “it directly threatens certain serious imminent harm, which can’t be averted through other measures.”
Lukianoff argued that those who say that “fire” cannot be shouted in a crowded theater “is showing that they don’t know much about the principles of free speech, or free speech law — or history.”
“This old canard, a favorite reference of censorship apologists, needs to be retired,” he wrote. “It’s repeatedly and inappropriately used to justify speech limitations. People have been using this cliché as if it had some legal meaning, while First Amendment lawyers roll their eyes[.]”
Jeff Kosseff, an associate professor of cybersecurity law at the United States Naval Academy, wrote on Jan. 4 that yelling fire in a crowded theater is permissible speech.
“Courts have rigorously scrutinized government acts that might plausibly conflict with the amendment,” he wrote for The Atlantic. “But in common usage, shouting ‘Fire’ in a crowded theater has become an all-purpose justification for regulating speech while evading judicial scrutiny.”
Moulton, FIRE, Strossen and Kosseff did not immediately respond to the Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment.
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