Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
Justin M. StoddardBurn This Post
Posted at 7:20 pm on April 4, 2011, by Justin M. Stoddard

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

—A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt

In 1919, Oliver Wendell Holmes proclaimed that you cannot “shout fire in a crowded theater.” The ignorant, the credulous and the cynical have been misusing that phrase ever since. The argument usually follows a well defined euphemistic process:

Person X says something offensive or inflammatory. Person Y denounces not person X but rather his speech by saying, “there is no such thing as free speech. You can’t shout fire in a crowded theater.” Implied is that speech is already restricted, so there’s no problem in restricting it further for whatever the reason du jour.

I’ve heard this argument from both sides of the political spectrum.

Here’s the thing. Justice Holmes was using the ‘fire in a theater’ analogy to refer to speech that had no “conceivable useful purpose,” or was “extremely or inherently dangerous.” In this case, the speech in question were fliers handed out in Yiddish opposing the draft for Mr. Wilson’s war. (In case you missed it, Mr. Wilson is the great “Progressive” president that oversaw a government apparatus of which Josesph McCarthy could only dream, longingly.)

Is this perfectly clear? Justice Holmes, with the full weight of the judicial branch behind him, with enthusiastic support from the executive branch, ruled that any verbal or written opposition to war was of no purpose and was extremely dangerous, essentially nullifying any First Amendment rights on the issue. Many hundreds of people languished in prison for long periods of time for the “crime” of “shouting fire in a crowded theater,” and this is inevitably the problem with arguments from authority or arguments from tradition. They almost always lead back to Yiddish-speaking pacifists. Please remember this the next time one of your friends feels the need to use this canard in any future discussions about speech.

I am going to be unequivocal in what I say next. There will be no genuflection. There will be no apologies. I ask for no quarter and welcome all challengers on the subject.

I will stand up for and next to mentally ill, idiotic, book-burning pastors with all the ignorant religiosity and disgustingly offensive things they stand for before I’ll give one nod of acknowledgment to the likes of Senators Harry Reid and Lindsey Graham (Democrat and Republican, respectively) and their pusillanimous simpering; anytime, anywhere.

When Harry Reid says, “We’ll take a look at this of course … as to whether we need hearings or not, I don’t know,” I say, “It’s none of your business. It’s none of the government’s business.” Not only should Harry Reid be fundamentally embarrassed for uttering such a statement, his constituency should be incredibly alarmed.

When Lindsey Graham says, “I wish we could find a way to hold people accountable. Free speech is a great idea, but we’re at war,” my response is to ask, “when are we NOT at war?” I will also go on to say that in all of human history, nothing thoughtful or nuanced has ever been uttered after the phrase, “Free speech is a great idea, but. …”

Any bien pensant has more than a few choice words for the likes of Pastor Terry Jones and his ilk. He has expressed his First Amendment rights, as is his birthright, and we fight him in kind, with … wait for it … free speech. That’s how it works. We want people like Terry Jones and his maniacal followers in the light of day. We dare not use the force of government to censor him, for fear of driving him underground to fester, to lend him credence. That’s how it works in an enlightened, secular, civil society. When offended, we do not go around beheading people. We do not rend our clothes and beat our breasts. There are no overwrought gesticulations. We go to the public square, without hindrance of or succor from the government, and we fight it out.

It needs to be said. Clichéd euphemisms do not need protection. They are banal and lazy, but rarely offensive. We fight these battles at the desolate outer fringes of respectability. We do this because we understand that to censor speech is to set up a chair in the anteroom of all our minds, inviting any petty bureaucrat to have a seat. Whom do you trust to take on such a role? Senator Harry Reid? Senator Lindsey Graham? Who among your friends would you appoint the gatekeeper to your thoughts?

Burn a book? I would stand on the side of any person who burned every beloved word of William Faulkner if it demonstrated how serious I am about free speech. I say that with no small amount of emotion. Just the thought of it makes me tear up.

I do not wish to have the devil turn on me and, in turn, have no protection, all the laws of the land laid low.

Shame on those who think otherwise, whatever their political ideology.

[Cross-posted at Shrubbloggers.]


Filed under: Freedom of Expression, Politics, Religious Freedom, Rhetoric
Comments: 2 Comments
 

2 Comments »

  1. […] at The Lesson Applied.] — Justin M. StoddardComments […]

    Pingback by The Shrubbloggers » Burn This Post — April 4, 2011 @ 9:43 pm

  2. “But in the law, there I am a forester…”

    When I was fifteen years old, I copied this entire dialogue out of the play and into a notebook I carried with me everywhere I went. I still appreciate much of the sentiment, but I think I side more with Roper more than I did at fifteen. I’d gladly grant the devil the benefit of the law for my own sake, but when the devil starts making the laws, it gets more problematic.

    Comment by John Payne — April 4, 2011 @ 10:33 pm

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Henry Hazlitt"[T]he whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson
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