2009-2010 Sullivan Lecture: Vincent Blasi

  • Shouting “Fire!” in a Theater and Other Famous Examples Marking the Limits of Free Speech

    Professor Vincent Blasi, the Corliss Lamont Professor of Civil Liberties at Columbia Law School and the James Madison Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Virginia 

     The great debates about the meaning of the First Amendment often concern general ideas and abstract conceptions. However, often it is specific examples, real or imagined, that drive legal developments and mark legal limits, in constitutional as well as common law. The 31st Annual John E. Sullivan Lecture will explore several of the most famous examples that have given shape to the modern law of free speech. Among the examples to be discussed are:

    1) Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s dictum that the First Amendment “would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

    2) John Stuart Mill’s statement in On Liberty that the opinion that corn dealers are starvers of the poor “may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn dealer.”

    3) Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes’s assurance in Near v. Minnesota that the principle against prior restraints on speech would not disallow a nation at war from enjoining “the publication of the sailing dates of transports or the number and location of troops.”

    4) Professor Alexander Meiklejohn’s defense of laws that restrict the time, place, and manner of speaking by analogy to the many ways that a moderator at a town meeting regulates discussion in order to promote a productive exchange of views.

    Professor Blasi will ask what exactly these examples are supposed to prove and what implications they have for some important modern controversies.