Is it Illegal to Yell Fire in a Theater?

Suppose you asked a solicitor or any knowledgeable person what would not be protected under the First Amendment’s Freedom of Speech clause. In that case, you will likely be given an example of someone yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.

Time and again, this example is routinely parroted to justify the limitations on ‘free speech.

It keeps coming up, this statement ‘you can’t shout fire in a crowded theater should not be said as it is unlawful.

Many people want to know if it is illegal to yell fire in the theater or just a completely made-up rule.

Is it Illegal to Yell Fire in the Theater?

No, it is not illegal to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. In fact, you can yell whatever you want as long as it does not interrupt or disturb the theater audience. However, yelling ‘fire’, inciting panic, and the events which can transpire as a result of doing so can make this action legal or illegal.

No matter how you do it, inciting panic in a public place or theater is illegal. It may include yelling fire or pulling a fire alarm which may lead to people running to save their lives and serious injuries. In such circumstances, you can earn quite a few lawsuits.

If fellow audience members are disturbed by your yelling, the person would be asked to leave and then trespassed if he refused.

It is not advisable to yell in a crowded theater even if it does not cause panic.

1st Amendment and Yelling Fire in the Crowded Theater

Many people claim that the First Amendment gives people the right to free expression, therefore, it is fine to shout whatever you want in a crowded space.

It sure gives people the right to free speech, however, the person does not get a right to avoid the consequences of that ‘expression’.

Therefore, there is no use in hiding behind the first amendment after causing a major accident. Doing something this reckless is super stupid and will lead to serious injuries or worse.

Schenck vs United States Court Case

This big fat legal myth stemmed from the 1917 ‘Schenck vs United States court case. Interestingly enough, the case was not about yelling fire, theaters, or free speech.

It was about an individual charged with violations of the Espionage Act because he was speaking out against the draft. So, this analogy ‘ of shouting fire in a crowded theater was argued in the 1917 court case to limit free speech.

Justice Holmes gave the ruling on the case using this phrase as an analogy and an explanation “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man from falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a theater and causing a panic.”


Historical Events

Following historical instances will help moviegoers understand the consequences of shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater and inciting panic.

  • Mount Morris Theater – In September 1884, someone from the audience yelled ‘Fire’ thrice when the film ‘Storm Beaten’ was being displayed. The person was arrested by the policeman for creating panic.
  • Royal Surrey Gardens Music Hall – In October 1856, a similar incident took place where a person shouted ‘fire’ at a religious service which incited panic, killing seven people.
  • Raymond Cinema 3 – In Metro Manila, a teenage girl died and several women were injured due to a stampede that began when somebody falsely yelled fire at a crowded theater.

A different incident from the aforementioned ones took place in Brooklyn Theater on December 5, 1876. The theater staff did not yell fire and took necessary actions timely when the fire broke out which led to the death of about 278 people.


Although it is not unlawful to yell ‘fire’ in the theater, free speech can not go completely unchecked. It is one of the widely misunderstood quotes that can potentially have serious consequences for inciting panic and chaos.

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