Falsely Shouting Fire in a Theater: How a Forgotten Labor Struggle Became a National Obsession and Emblem of Our Constitutional Faith
The idea of shouting "FIRE!" in a crowded theater comes from Oliver Wendell Holmes' arguing against Socialists who opposed the draft in World War One.
Charles T. Schenck is remembered today less for what he did than for the image he helped inspire: that of a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. That image was first offered by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as an illustration of what Schenck did during the First World War, and it has since become a fixture of our discussions about the delicate balance between freedom and security, liberty and order, particularly though not exclusively in times of war.
It’s a pity that we remember the metaphor rather than the man, however, for the gap between what Schenck did and what Holmes said he did is considerable—and instructive.
Schenck was the general secretary of the Socialist Party in Philadelphia during the First World War. Unlike their sister parties in Western Europe, America’s Socialists firmly opposed the war, even after the United States entered it in April 1917. That summer, Schenck and his Philadelphia comrades launched a campaign against the draft. They composed a two-sided leaflet that attacked the draft as unconstitutional and called for people to join the Socialist Party and persuade their representatives in Congress to repeal it. If the leaflet’s language was strong—“a conscript is little better than a convict…deprived of his liberty and of his right to think and act as a free man”—it was also conventional, couched in a vernacular many would have found familiar. One side proclaimed “Long Live the Constitution of the United States.” The other urged people to “Assert Your Rights!”