The problem with shouting “Tyranny!” in a crowded theater

This is a brief excerpt from my “Action-Based Jurisprudence: Praxeological Legal Theory in Relation to Economic Theory, Ethics, and Legal Practice.” Libertarian Papers 3, 19 (2011), pp. 36–37.

It is popularly repeated in “civics” type discussions of fundamental rights and responsibilities that one may not shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Merely intoning the name of this famous example is thought to be enough to remind or instruct those present that “rights” are not “absolute” and must be “limited.”

Before delving into the problems with this reasoning, it may be instructive to understand the shady history of the example. The original statement was: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic” (Schenk vs. United States 1919).

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was penning an opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States. Even though specific speech acts were under discussion, the (constitutional) “right” of free speech was considered. However, what is less widely known is that the actual speech in the case involved neither fires nor theaters. At issue were statements opposing involuntary military servitude (the “draft”) in World War I. Among the examples were leaflets that included such statements as, “Do not submit to intimidation” and “Assert your rights.”

It turns out, then, that a supreme agent of the state introduced this example to rationalize an opinion that obfuscated an otherwise clear issue in favor of that same state. The court, in effect, upheld the punishment of legitimate acts of opposition to an exercise of tyranny that was both unjust on general principles and explicitly illegal under the constitution that established the court’s own existence (“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” US Const, Amend XIII, § 1). It is no wonder that confused thinking might follow from such an example.

The rights/actions distinction shows how some of the general notions usually assumed to derive from the theater example are confused (see Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, 113–18). First, a person has a right to be the one—as opposed to someone else—who controls his own voice. Yet shouting “Fire!” in the theater is an action. What is the means/ends structure? The means is to shout the word. It may be fair to assume, prima facie, that the end is to needlessly panic the crowd and disrupt the theater experience. This vocal act endangers and inconveniences other patrons and violates the explicit or implied rules set by the theater owner.

However, this need imply no “limitation” on the right of the shouter to be the one in charge of his voice. All that is needed is to say that he, as the absolute and undisputed user of that voice, is responsible for the actions that he takes with it, just as an “absolute and undisputed” motorcycle owner is responsible for the results that follow from how he rides his—or any other—motorcycle.

A simpler example more directly linked to the ownership model of rights further illustrates the importance and usefulness of the rights/actions distinction. The reason attacking another with a baseball bat is a non-aggression principle infringement has nothing to do with who owns the bat (maybe the attacker stole it) or whether ownership of bats can be “absolute” or not, or whether rights to own bats are “limited” by coming up against the rights of others not to be hit by them. Nor would it clarify matters if an archivist were to present a tattered parchment bearing a long lost, secretly ratified amendment establishing a “Constitutional Right to Own a Baseball Bat” (…which, especially for Americans, must not be denied or disparaged!).

What is relevant to praxeological legal analysis is the action of using a baseball bat to hit someone, regardless of who owns it or to which degree of alleged “absoluteness” it is owned. The bat is the means. The end is the result sought from the action of attacking—hurting the person and perhaps also stealing their property. The question of who owns the means—the bat—is not directly relevant to the injustice of the action—the hitting. It does not matter, unless there is some specific reason to argue otherwise (for example, ownership might function as one line of evidence showing what was done and by whom), whose bat is used.