Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in discussing the limits of free speech, wrote in Schenck v. U.S. (1919):

“The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

A lot of people mess up the quote, saying that “you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater.” Actually you can yell fire in a crowded theater, if there really is a fire.

But no one has messed it up like Nancy Pelosi just did.

Pelosi was objecting to a National Park Service decision to grant a free speech group a permit to hold a rally in San Francisco over the objections of local and state Democrats:

The feds have granted the final permit for the right-wing “Free Speech” rally to be held by Patriot Prayer on Saturday, which has city officials concerned that violent clashes between protesters may grace the foot of our Golden Gate.

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area and National Park Service announced Wednesday that the permit had been granted.

“We cannot deny a permit to anyone planning to exercise their First Amendment rights based on their political stance or beliefs,” the park service wrote in a statement. “We can deny a permit application for public safety reasons if the event raises such significant public safety concerns that law enforcement cannot manage the event.”

In explaining why the Park Service should not, in her view, have granted a permit, Pelosi invoked, in her own unique way, the Holmes quote:

“The constitution does not say that a person can yell wolf in a crowded theater”

I’m not sure yelling “wolf” in a crowded theater would get much of a reaction. People would just look at you like you’re crazy.


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