I think most people would agree that it’s not just wrong, but a rights violation, falsely to yell “fire” in a crowded theater. Both the claim and the slogan that goes with it come from Oliver Wendell Holmes’s opinion in the 1919 Supreme Court case, Schenck vs. United States. Why it’s a rights violation is less obvious than the fact that it is. I’ve seen libertarians try to explain why on the grounds that the person engaged in the yelling violates the property rights of the theater owners: he doesn’t own the theater, and violates the property rights of the owners in effect by speaking out of turn. But that can’t be right. I’d insist that a rights violation takes place even if the theater owner himself does the yelling, even if the ownership of the theater is disputed, and even if the theater’s current owner came to have legal title to the theater through malfeasance. It also takes place if the theater was “publicly owned,” and so, didn’t (in my view, at least) have a clear-cut owner. What’s rights violative is the speech act of falsely inducing a panic, regardless of who owns the place where the speech act takes place.
Someone’s falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theater seems so unlikely an occurrence as to make the whole issue seem academic or legalistic. How often (one might ask) do rights violations of this kind really happen? How often do people falsely yell “fire” in a crowded theater or some equivalent? Actually, I think rights violations of the “falsely yelling fire” variety happen all the time—every day, thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of times a day. We don’t notice them, I suppose, because we tend to take them for granted, and we take them for granted because they don’t, overtly speaking, look like falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. What I have in mind is the phenomenon that supplies the title of this post. Think about the asshole (and I’m afraid that’s the only word that fits) who honks his horn at you at a merge, or a yield, or a left turn at a traffic light, urging you into danger in order to suit his desire to get to his destination about 30 seconds faster than he might otherwise. Like the person yelling “fire,” the honking asshole wants to induce panic in you at your expense—or pressure or intimidate you into action—not necessarily for fun, but to save time on his commute.
Those of us who drive a lot in north Jersey encounter this phenomenon (and phenomena like it) every day, often twice a day—on the way to work, and back. Consider two examples, which took place at different but similar merges on my way to work last week.
(1) I was about to merge onto a ramp that leads to the Garden State Parkway. I confronted a yield sign, and a car was in fact coming my way, so I yielded to it. But the driver behind me thought I shouldn’t be yielding. Evidently, “yielding” was not part of her ontology. So she honked good and loud at me, urging me onto the ramp, and straight toward the oncoming car. Had I followed her “advice,” I would (with nearly 100% certainty) have hit the oncoming car, not that this seemed to matter to her. What mattered is that I had yielded to oncoming traffic, wasting a good three seconds of her precious time.
(2) I was about to merge onto Route 46 East. It was morning rush hour, and oncoming traffic coming down the highway was heavy. When it comes to merges of this kind (especially on Route 46), it’s often hard to gauge (and easy to miscalculate) how fast oncoming traffic is coming, partly because no one obeys the speed limit, and partly because the sight lines are terrible (you have to crane your head backward in a tortuous manner to be able to see oncoming traffic). I saw a car in the distance coming my way, and figured that it was both too close and coming too fast to permit a safe merge, so I decided to wait for it to go by before I merged onto the highway. Not good enough for the guy behind me, who obviously thought that I ought to adopt his danger- and speed-happy risk calculus, rush into the highway, and risk an accident so that he could get to his all-important destination twelve seconds faster than my driverly pusillanimity permitted.
As I said before, this sort of thing is commonplace in New Jersey.
Here’s my claim: if it’s a rights violation falsely to yell “fire” in a crowded theater, then episodes (1) and (2) above describe rights violations as well. They may not look like yelling fire in a crowded theater, but causally and normatively, they amount to the same thing. The honking of the horn in both cases is analogous to falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. The danger into which the honker is urging me is analogous to the dangers created by a stampede in a crowded theater. (Incidentally, I don’t think it’s central to Holmes’s claim that the theater be crowded. A half-full theater might do just as well.)
There are differences between the cases, but I think the differences are relatively unimportant, normatively speaking. Honking is not literally a speech act, but it’s close enough to one. Honking is probably not as apt to induce a panicked response as falsely yelling “fire,” but it’s close enough. The person yelling “fire” is doing it out of malice or for fun, whereas the honker is honking out of impatience. But part of the motivation for impatience in the context of driving is the sense of pleasure that the impatient person gets at fast and reckless driving (cf. Plato’s Gorgias on this general phenomenon). When he honks at you, it’s not just because you’re taking up his time per se, but because you constitute an impediment to the literal speed rush he gets when he gets to drive without drivers like you around. So there may turn out to be a partial motivational overlap between the theater and traffic cases as well (not that that really matters to the essential issue).
I’m inclined to think that the probability of serious injury is greater in my examples than in the crowded theater. A panicked stampede is dangerous, but if we’re talking about movie theaters rather than stadiums, I don’t think it’s very likely to be fatal (though I’m guessing here; I don’t really know). By contrast, the traffic accidents I have in mind in (1) and (2) would very likely have been seriously injurious to someone, and could very easily have been fatal. In both the theater and traffic cases, we might perhaps want to put a bit more of a burden on the would-be victims than I so far have, demanding that they display a little more grace under pressure, e.g., checking to see whether there really is a fire in the theater case, or resisting the honker regardless of the pressure induced by the honking in the traffic cases. I’m willing to entertain the possibility that the victims’ panic in both cases is mildly culpable—a failure of independence under pressure. But I don’t think a finding of culpability would change the fact that what we have here are bona fide rights violations.
So I’d conclude that the theater and traffic cases are sufficiently similar to justify describing them as the same kind of act, giving them the same normative status, and (to some extent) treating them the same way. In part 2 of this post, I want to discuss some of the philosophical ramifications of this claim. One set has to do with the relation between egoism and asshole behavior. Another set has to do with rights-violations and law enforcement. A third set has to do with traffic as a source of moral knowledge.
Postscript, February 14, 2015: This article offers useful substantiation of the attitude I describe in the text, though in a slightly different context–dangerous railroad crossings in the New York-New Jersey metro area. This brief passage tells the whole tale:
The less expensive safety measures — automatic gates, lights, bells and signs — are largely in place in the New York region. A challenge is creating crossings that can overcome the lesser impulses of human nature in a part of the country where many people do not see patience as a virtue.
In Brentwood, N.Y., on Monday, a couple on foot watched as the safety gate at the Washington Avenue crossing, one of the most dangerous in the region, lowered in front of them, its bells sounding and lights flashing. After one Long Island Rail Road train passed through, heading east, the man and woman ducked underneath the crossing gate. The man glanced toward the train receding in the distance and suddenly jumped back.
“There’s another train coming!” he yelled.
The woman did not break stride as a westbound train barreled through, missing her by a few feet. “I’ve lived here long enough to know when not to do it,” said the woman, who declined to give her name. ….
“I sit there in awe, I hold my breath watching them. I think, ‘Oh my God, these people are risking too much,’ ” said Cecilia Vaughn, 48, a medical assistant who works near the Washington Avenue crossing.
It’s bad enough when they risk too much with their own lives. But the truth is that they have no compunction risking too much with the lives of others. I sometimes wonder whether the very dangerousness of our roads facilitates risk-impulsiveness: like the soldier who hasn’t yet been shot on the battlefield, the driver or pedestrian who hasn’t yet been killed on the road regards herself as invincible exception to the laws of physics–until the laws of physics demonstrate otherwise.
Postscript 2, February 20, 2015: In case you thought I was exaggerating about New Jersey’s roads and traffic, here’s more substantiation of my claims, from an aptly-titled series of articles from the January 2015 issue of New Jersey Monthly: “Why New Jersey’s Roads Suck.” Unfortunately it’s behind a paywall, but a very informative read if you’re willing to plunk the $5 to read it. I highly advise reading it, if you’re from the NY-NJ Metro area: very gratifying to have one’s beliefs validated!