Week of June 28, 1999




On a computer’s hard drive, a certain kind of data corruption can render specific files unusable.  When this occurs, such files are called lost clusters.  The files are unusable because they are no longer properly connected to the remaining files on your computer.  If the lost clusters are not fixed, they can and will lead to computer errors.

There is a similar phenomenon within the human mind: lost concepts, ideas that are disconnected from reality, improperly connected to the remaining concepts within the mind and, consequently, cannot be applied to the appropriate context in reality.  The person whose mind is corrupted by lost concepts is led down a blind alley of contradictions and false conclusions.  Very often these conclusions yield devastating consequences for individual rights and freedom.

Consider a notion that most learn at a very early age: the assertion that no one has the right to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater.  This is commonly cited as indisputable proof that certain kinds of speech may be properly outlawed by the state, that even freedom of speech is not an absolute—and this is precisely the idea that is now almost universally accepted.  This is a lost concept.  And statists use this lost concept, all the time, to bolster their calls for restrictions on freedom of speech.

To understand the confusion over yelling "Fire!" in a theater, let’s go to the movies.

Your buying a movie ticket is the purchase of a strictly defined right to use the theater owner’s property for a specific purpose and for a limited time period, after which the right expires.  This is not to imply that rights are not absolute.  All rights are absolute within specified contexts.  Your right to life and liberty is, for instance, absolute within a specific context: you may act without anyone’s permission, as long as you respect the same right of all others.  A purchased, or rented, right to the use of another’s property is always confined to certain limitations and conditions established by the owner.

A right carries with it, as a sort of tacit postscript, an implied consent and denial of certain actions.  In the case of your theater ticket, you have consented to buy it on the implicit condition that your rights are not violated and that your viewing of the movie will not be disrupted by the owner or others in the theater.  The theater owner has consented to sell you a ticket with the same understanding: that you do nothing to violate his rights or the rights of his patrons.  In the sale of the ticket, there is an implicit denial by the owner of certain actions by you, such as defacing or damaging his property, talking during the movie or generally disrupting the viewing of others—and this includes yelling "Fire!" if there is no fire.

Yelling "Fire!" in a theater has nothing to do with freedom of speech.  It is exclusively an issue of property rights, of the right of the theater owner to forbid, by the implicit denial contained in the sale of the ticket, certain actions on his property.

By mentally placing this act—yelling "Fire!"—in the wrong category (freedom of speech), a person creates a lost concept in his mind, making it unusable, and arrives at the wrong conclusion: that it is proper for the state to make some speech illegal.  This, in turn, leads to the acceptance of the idea that if the state may forbid some speech, it may forbid any speech.  And this idea establishes the intellectual foundation for the eventual acceptance of full-blown censorship by the state.  Every time such a person attempts to object to the latest statist proposal to regulate speech, he is immediately disarmed when statists say, "No one has a right to yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater."  Such a person has no answer to this and is defeated by his own contradictions, reduced—like most Republicans—to only arguing over what speech will be regulated, not whether it should be regulated at all.

Actually, someone does have the right to yell "Fire!" in a theater: the theater owner and/or his patrons, if the owner permits such action.  But since the normal context of buying a ticket to a movie includes the implied denial, by the purchaser, of any disruption to his viewing of the movie, a theater owner could only permit such action if he posted a notice, making it explicitly clear that yelling "Fire!" is permitted and to be expected.  If you decide to buy a ticket, knowing that people are going to be yelling "Fire!" and other things, then your rights have not been violated and those permitted to do so have the right to yell "Fire!" as long as their lungs hold out.  I have no idea why a theater owner would want to permit such behavior, except to prove the point, but the fact is he has the right to do so.

Take a look at another lost concept, one that reinforces the growing acceptance of the idea that certain kinds of speech must be outlawed: flag burning as a form of freedom of speech.  Burning a flag may be a form of expression but it is not speech.  Speech refers to the use of words, to what you say, in any medium of communication.  Expression is a broader concept than speech, with speech simply being one of its forms.  All actions are an expression of some idea, but not all acts or expressions are speech.

Burning a flag is a matter of property rights, not freedom of speech.  If you own a flag, you may burn it, as long as the fire does not threaten the life and property of another.  If you do not own the flag, then you do not have the right to burn it unless the owner gives you permission to do so.  The same holds true for burning a cross on your property.  Such actions may be reprehensible and stupid, but they are not illegal in a free society.

These lost concepts result in lost rights and freedom.  The grim irony of such lost concepts is that they bring about the eventual suppression of what they are not (freedom of speech) as well as the destruction of what they are (property rights).  Statists get two victories for the price of one lost concept—a sort of double-coupon day in the shell game they play within the minds of others.

Those who have lost concepts in their minds had better do some mental housekeeping and clean them up.  If they do not, they will continue to be the unwitting participants in the destruction of their own freedom.

Fulton Huxtable
June 28, 1999

Copyright 1999 Fulton Huxtable



To read more by Fulton Huxtable, go to Fatal Blindness: America's Decades of Declining Freedom and The Rise of Its Dictators.

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