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Droning Cliches in a Burning Theater



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Following the banning of Geert Wilders – on “public security” grounds – the British government has been defending its decision. The BBC reports:

Foreign Secretary David Miliband told the BBC’s Hardtalk: “The home secretary made a decision on an individual case as she is required to do.”

He added that the film contained “extreme anti-Muslim hate and we have very clear laws in this country”.

Mr Miliband also said: “We have profound commitment to freedom of speech but there is no freedom to cry ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre.”

Here’s a good rule of thumb: Anybody who cites the fire-in-a-crowded-theatre line is brain-dead and has given no thought to the matter. And any show called “Hardtalk” worthy of the name would have called Miliband on it. Apart from anything else, I’d wager he never goes to the theatre. (“Fancy seeing Les Miserables?” “Good lord, man, are you insane? The place is a powderkeg.”) When I was testifying at the Ontario parliament on Monday, the chair turned to the Liberal member for his questions and, sure enough, the very first one out of the excitable fellow’s mouth was:

Mr. David Zimmer: Mr. Steyn, there was a well-known, indeed famous, American jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes, who made a statement in which he expressed his view of the limit on free speech in a case in the 1930s, and I’m wondering if you agree or disagree with this statement. He said that nobody is free to yell “Fire” in a crowded movie theatre.

Mr. Mark Steyn: It wasn’t the 1930s; it was 1919 that Oliver Wendell Holmes made that statement. It’s interesting, that case. He was an American-

Mr. David Zimmer: I know, but do you agree with that statement or not?

Mr. Mark Steyn: Let me say this for a start: He was upholding espionage charges against an anti-war protester. So by his measure, thousands of Canadian liberals would have been rounded up for protesting the war in Afghanistan.

Mr. David Zimmer: But don’t duck the question.

Mr. Mark Steyn: I’m not ducking the question…

Mr. David Zimmer: No, no, but then answer the statement.

Mr. Mark Steyn: Because Oliver-

The Chair (Mrs. Julia Munro): Excuse me. Could I just have one speaker at a time?

Mr. Mark Steyn: Oliver Wendell Holmes said that the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely-falsely-shouting “Fire” in a theatre. The problem with the Human Rights Tribunal is that falsely shouting “Fire” is not at issue. It doesn’t matter whether the theatre actually is on fire, because under the Human Rights Tribunal, truth is not a defence.

In my own particular case, no one has ever pointed to a single fact in the Maclean’s article, an excerpt from my book, that is inaccurate. So essentially-

Mr. David Zimmer: But back to Holmes’s statement, is that a fair limitation on freedom of speech: You can’t yell ” Fire” in a movie theatre, just as a general proposition?

Mr. Mark Steyn: As I’ve tried to answer you, I think if the theatre is on fire, you’re certainly entitled to point that out. By the way, that, as a metaphor, is simply a ludicrous metaphor. He was talking about gaslight, 19th century theatres. By 1919, the Winter Garden on Broadway… was an electrified theatre, and it wasn’t in danger of burning down. The metaphor is lazy and irrelevant.

A careless observer might be forgiven for concluding, from the way so many British socialists and Canadian liberals are dependent on the already obsolescent metaphor of a weirdo eugenicist American cracking down on anti-war protestors in a subsequently reversed court decision, that there really are no good arguments for state censorship. 

At the close of the Maclean’s/Steyn “flagrant Islamophobia” trial in Vancouver, Julian Porter, Queen’s Counsel, said:

Against the argument that you cannot cry fire in a crowded theatre: Oh yes, you can – you must, if in your considered view there is a fire. In that case there is a duty to cry fire.

Not according to David Milliband. But, if you want to cry “Allahu Akbar!” in a crowded theatre while reaching for your matches, feel free.



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