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Shouting Muhammad in a Crowded Theater

"The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater and causing a panic."

Wherever someone is looking to tamp down on free speech you can bet your bottom dollar that it won't be long before they roll out Oliver Wendell Holmes' old trope (although they usually strip it entirely of the context under which it was originally written.) The latest row over the "Innocence of Muslims" is no different.

Over the past several days the progressive left has shown an alarming level of comfort with the idea of censoring speech that is critical of Islam or insulting to the prophet Muhammad, with many arguing that the U.S. should essentially adopt Sharia-lite blasphemy laws. The logic? Comments that insult the prophet lead inevitably to emotional flame ups like the one's we're currently seeing in the Muslim world. The offending speech, therefore, is much like shouting fire in the proverbial theater.

Take ABC's Christiane Amanpour who last week insisted that Holmes' words are actually codified by law when she said, "There is also 100-year law by the United States Supreme Court, which says you can't cry fire in a crowded theater." Her misunderstanding of the Supreme Court aside (or maybe not), Amanpour articulates the mindset of many progressives.

But is that a fair analogy? Is it safe, in a free country, to assume that certain types of speech lead inevitably to violence?

There's a key distinction between Holmes' analogy and the sanguine sex orgy of a certain segment of the Muslim population. If someone shouts "fire!" in a crowded theater and causes a panic, theatergoers are acting rationally when they storm the exits. If people honestly believe there's a fire getting ready to burn them alive, they have no choice but to make a beeline in the opposite direction.

On the other hand, engaging in a murderous rampage because of a slight to a spiritual figure is not rational. You would have a tough time arguing to any reasonable individual that the initiation of violence based on nothing more than an insult to a living person is rational, much less one who's been dead for almost 1,400 years.

Now, I'm sure that those engaging in the violence consider their actions to be entirely rational. I'm sure they consider clitoridectomies and amputations for robbery to be rational too. Fortunately we base our laws and standards of behavior largely on enlightenment era ideas (aka reason) and not those of 7th Century Arab tribesmen.

To begin folding extremely intolerant 7th century sensibilities into a system of law that was designed for a tolerant population is to invalidate the very premise of liberal society. It's sad to see so many Americans ready to capitulate to the whims of an angry, irrational mob. It's even worse when the best defense they can offer is a tired cliche.

One last thing…
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