There's a traditional column you see repeated two or three times per year. The author and publication may vary, but the basic structure never changes: the column asserts that the First Amendment is not absolute, and that other countries prohibit various types of speech that offend or wound feelings, so Americans ought to as well.
This time the venue for the column is the Daily Beast, and the author is Fordham University Professor Thane Rosenbaum. Professor Rosenbaum wants us to follow the example of France and Israel and suppress more ugly speech, and argues we should rely on unspecified studies that show that speech can hurt.
There is nothing new under the sun. Professor Rosenbaum's argument resembles that of Anthea Butler or Eric Posner. In my series "A Year of Blasphemy," I have examined worldwide blasphemy prosecutions over two years to demonstrate that the norms these academics wold have us adopt are typically used to oppress religious minorities and the powerless under the thin guise of solicitude for feelings.
Scott Greenfield has already cheerfully demolished Professor Rosenbaum's very silly column. I will only address it to discuss just two of the common legal tropes Professor Rosenbaum clumsily deploys in support of an apologia for broad censorship.
First, there's the shoutout to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.:
There is no freedom to shout “fire” in a crowded theater.
Back in 2012 I wrote at length about the context for that Holmes quote. First of all, Professor Rosenbaum — like most Holmes fans — truncates the quote to render it vague. What Holmes actually said was "[t]he most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic."
But more importantly, Professor Rosenbaum — like most who misquote Holmes — ignores the context. To summarize rather than make you read my lengthy post: (1) Holmes made the analogy in deciding a shockingly brutal and censorious series of cases that are no longer good law, in which the Supreme Court gave the government free reign to jail people who criticized or agitated against American participation in World War I; (2) Holmes later repented of that position, undermined that line of cases through decisions he wrote or joined, and articulated a far more speech-protective line of authority that remains the law today, and (3) if you are fond of Holmes' rhetorical flourishes, you ought to know he was the sort of statist asshole who said things like "three generations of imbeciles are enough" whilst upholding the right of the government forcibly to sterilize people deemed undesirable.
In other words, when you throw around the "shout fire in a crowded theater" quote, you're echoing the rhetoric of a tyranny-cheerleader whose logic was later abandoned by everyone, including himself.
Next, Professor Rosenbaum invokes another favorite trope, "fighting words":
Certain proscribed categories have always existed—libel, slander and defamation, obscenity, “fighting words,” and the “incitement of imminent lawlessness”—where the First Amendment does not protect the speaker, where the right to speak is curtailed for reasons of general welfare and public safety.
The "fighting words" doctrine gets thrown around a lot to justify broad speech restrictions. The people who invoke it rarely tell you — and may not know themselves — how narrow it is, and how the courts have refused to extend it.
The "fighting words" doctrine comes from the Supreme Court's decision in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire in 1942. Fans of censorship like to quote the broader language of the opinion:
There are certain well defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or "fighting" words — those which, by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.
But censors generally don't quote the later language of the opinion narrowing the First Amendment exception:
It is a statute narrowly drawn and limited to define and punish specific conduct lying within the domain of state power, the use in a public place of words likely to cause a breach of the peace. . . . A statute punishing verbal acts, carefully drawn so as not unduly to impair liberty of expression, is not too vague for a criminal law. . . . .
Nor can we say that the application of the statute to the facts disclosed by the record substantially or unreasonably impinges upon the privilege of free speech. Argument is unnecessary to demonstrate that the appellations "damned racketeer" and "damned Fascist" are epithets likely to provoke the average person to retaliation, and thereby cause a breach of the peace.
This is the heart of the "fighting words" doctrine — a prohibition on face-to-face insults likely to cause a brawl. In that sense, it's entirely consistent with the Supreme Court's subsequent clear and present danger doctrine, in which advocacy can only be punished when it is "directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action."
People who cite the "fighting words" doctrine never tell you how it has been treated in the courts for the last half-century. The Supreme Court has refused every opportunity to rely upon it to uphold censorship, and in fact has consistently narrowed it. It was already narrowed by 1970 in Cohen v. California, when the Court refused to use it to justify punishment of a man who wore a jacket bearing the words "Fuck the Draft." The Court made it clear that the "fighting words" doctrine was narrowed to direct confrontations likely to provoke violence:
This Court has also held that the States are free to ban the simple use, without a demonstration of additional justifying circumstances, of so-called "fighting words," those personally abusive epithets which, when addressed to the ordinary citizen, are, as a matter of common knowledge, inherently likely to provoke violent reaction. Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U. S. 568 (1942). While the four-letter word displayed by Cohen in relation to the draft is not uncommonly employed in a personally provocative fashion, in this instance it was clearly not "directed to the person of the hearer." Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U. S. 296, 310 U. S. 309 (1940). No individual actually or likely to be present could reasonably have regarded the words on appellant's jacket as a direct personal insult. Nor do we have here an instance of the exercise of the State's police power to prevent a speaker from intentionally provoking a given group to hostile reaction. Cf. Feiner v. New York, 340 U. S. 315 (1951); Termniello v. Chicago, 337 U. S. 1 (1949). There is, as noted above, no showing that anyone who saw Cohen was, in fact, violently aroused, or that appellant intended such a result.
Later, in Texas v. Johnson, the Supreme Court refused to use the "fighting words" doctrine to justify a ban on flag burning:
Nor does Johnson's expressive conduct fall within that small class of "fighting words" that are "likely to provoke the average person to retaliation, and thereby cause a breach of the peace." Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568, 574 (1942). No reasonable onlooker would have regarded Johnson's generalized expression of dissatisfaction with the policies of the Federal Government as a direct personal insult or an invitation to exchange fisticuffs.
These cases reveal a common thread running through Professor Rosenbaum's familiar defense of censorship. The line of Holmes decisions he references upheld the government's right to suppress draft resistors and war critics. The cases narrowing the fighting words doctrine — Cohen and Johnson — involved government attempts to suppress criticism of its policies. Professor Rosenbaum and his ilk may attempt to convince you that their project is to defend the feelings of religious and ethnic minorities and the dispossessed. But the most charitable interpretation is that they are the useful idiots of tyranny. Just as the blasphemy norms they endorse are employed to abuse minorities and the powerless, the justifications for censorship they tout have been used to suppress criticism of the state and its power. Read Professor Rosenbaum's closing, and contemplate how his approach to speech would be used by any government we have ever known:
Free speech should not stand in the way of common decency.
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