by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Eric Boehm writes at Reason that U.S. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi offers just the latest example of a political leader misusing a famous quotation about proposed exceptions to free-speech protection.
“The Constitution does not say that a person can yell ‘wolf’ in a crowded theater,” Pelosi told KRON4’s Pam Moore. “If you are endangering people, you don’t have a constitutional right to do that.”
It would appear that Pelosi is confused about the distinction between the infamous cliché “shouting fire in a crowded theater,” a line from Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in the 1919 Supreme Court case Schenck v. United States, and the clichéd parable of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” which warns about not overreacting to imaginary threats.
The whole thing is even better because, in this case, Pelosi is playing the role of the boy (or congresswoman) who cried wolf. She’s calling for a reaction against a threat that hasn’t materialized yet. That’s what all prior restraints on speech are, of course, but she’s calling for a very specific action to be taken against a very specific group of people who haven’t even gathered yet, much less done anything that could be rightfully called “endangering people.”
But whether we’re talking about shouting “fire” in a theater or “wolf” in a park, the real issue here is that Pelosi seems to misunderstand the very metaphor she’s mangling in an attempt to justify limiting speech. …
… The only people who trot out the “shouting fire in a crowded theater” line these days are authoritarians grasping for excuses to censor people. …
… The modern standard for free speech comes from the 1969 case Brandenburg v. Ohio, in which court ruled that free speech cannot be restricted “except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action.”