Yelling Fire

One of my favorite lessons in our civics classes involved discussing the First Amendment, especially the freedom of speech. My students were surprised at how short it is:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

We had lively discussions about our rights and freedoms—and my students were keenly aware of how their rights were restricted in prison. We talked a lot about respect, a concept much discussed as they navigated a place where they didn’t always feel respected. We talked about slanderous speech and had many discussions about what constituted hate speech. My students understood that responsibilities are  attached to these freedoms. I used the age-old examples of how our freedom stops where the another person’s nose begins and “You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater.” The idea of the Golden Rule came up too. I said that, however short and seemingly simple, as a nation we would be discussing the First Amendment and its complications forever.

I sit and wonder what my students would say about the current climate of political speech. I know some of them would be horrified. I know they would care about the immigrants in the country. They would care about Muslims.  They would care how protesters have been treated at Trump rallies. When they learned just how hard it was for women to get the vote, they were horrified at the way women were treated before 1920, the imprisonments and force feedings the women endured. I wonder what their reactions would be to the misogyny displayed today.

Living together like sardines forced people to get along, and I felt a high level of civility as I walked around the prison compound. Even people I didn’t know greeted me politely, held doors open, and offered to carry things to my classroom. Because we focused on what it means to be good citizens, I decided to include discussions of civility. I called in graduates of the program to lead discussions, which were always lively and interesting. Mr. Mack, a young, consistently cheerful black man, could have written a book about civility. He was always friendly, always helpful, always aware of how other people were feeling. In response to Mr. Mack’s good humor, someone asked, “Ya but, what if you’re having a bad day?”

Mr. Mack replied, “It’s never okay to take out bad feelings on other people! Other people have bad days too, and I don’t want to make things worse. This is a tough place to be, and we gotta help each other.”

America has a lot of hurting people, and Trump is giving them a voice. He knows just how to tap into the disappointment, the anger, the fears: it’s all about Mexican immigrants taking jobs, the Chinese getting American jobs, the Muslim terrorists.  He’s “tellin’ it like it is” as he bashes women and those others, talking about how strong, smart, loved he is. Somehow, he’s saying, “I have all the truth.”

The problem is, those attitudes and statements have consequences. Lots of people are affected, particularly children. At a high school basketball game in Indiana, white students held up a picture of Trump and chanted, “Build a wall!” when playing a school of Hispanic students.

When Cokey Roberts, political analyst, asked Trump about this incident and how his rhetoric damages children, he responded that it was “a nasty question” and went on to duck any response.

Muslim students are having a particularly hard time. We should not be surprised that children are bullying. Children mimic what they see adults doing.

New Jersey senator Cory Booker noted recently “There are always going to be people with hateful words in their mouths, and worse. Between 20 and 30 transgender Americans were killed last year for who they were. We had a church in South Carolina where someone walked in to kill black people specifically. But what concerns me more are all the good people who sit silent in the face of what’s going on. We all have a choice. We can do nothing and accept things the way they are, or we can stand up and take responsibility for changing them.

Words have consequences, sometimes deadly consequences.

Booker went on, “To me, being silent in the face of injustice is the greatest threat we have.” This from a senator who is making it a point to reach across the great political divide in the Senate and not see Republicans as enemies.

Some moments in my classroom remain vivid. Mr. Park was an older student in his fifties, well-liked and respected. He spoke quietly one day saying, “I came into prison needing to feel like a man. I am leaving school feeling like a gentleman.” My breath caught and my eyes filled up. Mr. Park was expressing our greatest strength: our respect and care for others. Our strength lies in our gentleness—not our tough talk. Hate speech is hurt speech, and it says “I know all the truth about you.” We need to get out of our comfort zones and get to know people who are different than we are. If we cannot, we can get to know their struggles by reading about them. We need to treat other people as we would like to be treated. We need to stand up to hate and injustice. Yelling fire will only fan the flames of our divisions, our discord and our dysfunctions.”



  1. Galanes, Philip, On Purposeful Paths, The New York Times, March 27, 2106.