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"Fire" In A Crowded Theater
Section 8 of 16

Can I be held legally responsible for yelling "fire" in a crowded theater?


The answer: yes.

Police blotters and journalistic accounts of hate crimes often record that somebody in the crowd yelled "get that nigger" or "kill the fag" just before the crime was commited. Unfortunately, the instigators are rarely fingered and even less frequently prosecuted.

Fortunately, in this country, primary culpability for a crime resides in those who actually committed it, though we do have accomplice laws which cover a number of categories of aiding and abetting.

"Protected speech" is a legal term covering any number of different instances of the constitutional exercise of free speech. We may not like it, but citizens regularly exercise this right in a suprisingly inventive number of patently offensive and denigrative ways.

When protected speech crosses over into the public arena in a way deliberately calculated to bring harm to others' persons or property, the law may be used to hold the speaker culpable for actual consequential damage that is done.

Inciting to riot is a well-known example of a general principle.

When hate speech is publicly propagated under the cloak of political or religious principle (and it makes no difference which), each case of harm to individuals should be examined to see if intent and consequence can be proved.

Please consider that a law passed which selectively categorizes groups of innocent citizens, for denial of constitutional and common law rights honored for other groups, is an initiation of force against that group.

Institutionalized discriminatory legislation, or behavior, is violence against those groups because the armed might of the local and United States governments is required to withhold exercise of those rights, and to enforce its prohibition.

Hiding civil rights violations behind the immunity of governments in no way diminishes the severity of the violation. It just makes them more difficult to dismantle.

Churches which engage in partisan battles to curb civil liberties should be utterly suspect, and at the very least their tax-exempt status should be examined closely (as is already happening in the most flagrant cases).

Politicians who cater to "deals" to break down constitutional separations between church and state should be removed from office.

The problem isn't that there's anything wrong with your church or its views. The problem is that once the barriers are down, the other person's church will try to get legislation passed favoring their own views, at the expense of yours.

It is interesting that the very churches most active in trying to suppress freedom of expression on the Internet, the NEA art exhibits, the radio and television, and in the schools, are among the quickest of groups to cite their own constitutional freedoms as grounds for legislating censorship.

When national church leaders publically cite the scriptures, in carefully-couched warnings that homosexuals should be executed in a properly run society, the non-gay 90% part of America should consider that they have been served fair warning that they and their loved ones could be next.

In a country where we can secure laws and court orders to prevent certain sects from slaughtering animals in religious ritual sacrifices, we can certainly secure gag orders against the handful of religious leaders who hide behind their religious freedoms while calling for the execution of other human beings.

We have read elsewhere of some church leaders (why is it always the same ones?) who style defense of freedom as "anti-religious" or defense of minorities as "promoting the homosexual lifestyle". We aren't going to try to answer all this crap.

Speaking for myself, and probably for Matt Shepard if he were still alive, I don't give a hang for persecuting churches or the principles they believe in. That's wrong. All I want is fair and equal treatment before the law, a fair shake on an equal footing with other Americans.

Denying gays or any other group or minority that "fair shake" before the law, whether on grounds of private belief or openly antagonistic prejudice, is also morally wrong.

I believe what we are asking is so simple as to be almost self-evident. If you clearly see the link between wrongs done to others and breaches of your own rights and security, say so, in no uncertain terms, to your religious leaders and elected representatives.

It is never a sin to fail to join a crusade or popular movement. It is always a sin to remain silent when you know injustice has been done and no remedy is in sight.


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