Daily News-Record (Harrisonburg, VA) – May 3, 2016
Opinion (Open Forum)
I have a scenario running through my head late at night when I take a break from my climate-change concerns. It was prompted by the assumption that free speech does not mean it’s OK to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. The vision I have was brought to mind recently after the editorial agreeing with George Will that the attempt to prosecute ExxonMobil for its campaign of disinformation about the risks of climate change is really an attempt “to punish the climate denial apparatus” (“Stop The Dissent,” April 25).
In my scenario, there’s also a crowded theater, with people eating popcorn, drinking sodas, and enjoying the latest Mad Max movie. Some are in the balcony in the cheap seats, some are in air-conditioned boxes, but most are just sitting on the main floor. The theater begins to get a little warm but hey, it’s full, so what? It gets gradually warmer and someone goes to the office to ask for more AC. The management says everything’s fine, why not buy a soft drink? A little later some people towards the back think there’s a slight smell of smoke in the air and again go to the office to find out what’s wrong. Management says it’s just the smell of the new popcorn machine, not really smoke, why not have another bag? The buzz of concern grows louder when someone else sees a curl of smoke and a tongue of fire rising from a crack in the back wall. This time the management sprays air freshener and announces that there’s absolutely nothing wrong and that the complainers are just hypersensitive sissies who are trying to spoil the movie for everyone else.
Someone dials 911 to report a possible fire but is told all engines are otherwise occupied with car wrecks and cat rescues. The people in boxes continue to enjoy the apocalyptic film about a distant future. Those in the balcony are being overcome by the smoke and heat but few hear their cries. The management continues to scoff at the complainers and warns them about the criminal consequences of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. They’ve invested heavily in the new popcorn popper and the air-conditioned boxes and nothing can, or will be allowed to, go wrong. The publicity alone would ruin them.
Nevertheless, people begin to leave, with some of those overcome by the thick smoke in the balcony being helped out by their friends. Others are left to die. People in the boxes call in their complaints about not being able to see through the smoke and are reassured that it’s just a harmless special effect. Ultimately they too succumb. And this is the scenario with a happy ending. In the other one, everyone dies because management has locked the doors, contrary to safety regulations they philosophically oppose.
Our constitutionally granted right to freedom of speech is one of our most basic. It protects our right to espouse our own religious and philosophical beliefs. It even protects our right to tell other people what to eat but not to force-feed them. It protected Michael Mann when dissenters tried to shut down his research. It protects the editor’s favorite skeptical scientists whose work is simply ignored when it doesn’t reflect reality. And it protects the editor when he expresses his misunderstanding of the facts of climate science. Free speech encourages active, partisan, loud, even unruly debate over policy, including policy about combatting climate change.
But does it protect management when it denies the theater is on fire and tries to hide the evidence? Does it protect management when deaths occur as a result? My imagined patrons had only to leave Theater A and travel down the road to Theater B. Unfortunately, there is no Planet B. We’re stuck on Planet Earth and it’s beginning to smoke.
Joni Grady lives in Harrisonburg.