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Joshua Mawhorter

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Why Censorship Advocates Are Obsessed with Stories about Yelling 'Fire!' in a Theater


If one boldly asserts the importance of the right of freedom of speech, it is almost inevitable that another will respond with one of the most common apologetic arguments for the government limitation of speech, “But you can’t yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.” The non sequitur argument is supposed to humble the right of free speech in favor of some government restriction. This argument fails logically because it does not follow that because a theater may restrict speech of those it admits through sale of a ticket that government must be empowered to legally restrict the speech of its citizens in general.

Additionally, the problem is largely theoretical and imaginary. This is a common tactic of statism and argumentation in favor of statism: Problem X might arise in society, therefore, government must prevent X by action Y. In other words, we are expected to believe that the government must legally restrict freedom of speech because otherwise people would be free to shout “Fire!” in crowded theaters. This is not the case logically or practically. Have you ever heard of this happening in real life?

With that said, where does this common argument come from and when was the first time it was used?
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