Free Speech

Shouting Hellfire in a Crowded Theater

At the end of one Avengers screening, a man started yelling, "If you were to die tonight, would your passage to heaven be guaranteed?"

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Or so CBS Los Angeles reports, quoting one eyewitness. The man's outburst led to a panic, presumably because some people were wondering whether he was really in such a subjunctive mood, or whether "die tonight" might be a threat rather than a hypothetical. It appears the man was just trying to preach, however misguidedly:

The 28-year-old preacher with Truth and Triumph Ministries [Michael Webber] told CBS2 via phone he's preached at the theater before with no problems.

"Last night was an anomaly," said Webber. "The lights did not turn up for quite a few minutes, and so I really couldn't see anyone's reaction except those of the people just right around me."

He added he didn't know the people in the theater couldn't see he had his hands up, showing he did not have a weapon.

"It's extremely unfortunate that anyone sustained injuries because of this," lamented Webber. "Again, I was unarmed." …

Webber has been charged with a misdemeanor. He told CBS2 this will not deter his evangelizing, but he might reconsider his setting.

I should hope so.

Whether and on what grounds Webber can be criminally punished is a separate question:

  1. Some press accounts report (e.g., San Bernardino Sun (Beatriz Valenzuela) that the misdemeanor was "offensive language likely to cause a violent reaction," but that's not the right charge—that provision is limited to "fighting words" that are likely to provoke insulted listeners to a fight (hence the requirement of "offensive" words that are likely to cause a "violent" reaction rather than just a frightened one).
  2. Webber might be prosecuted for disturbing others making loud and unreasonable noise, but that requires a showing that he had "a wish to vex, annoy, or injure another person, or an intent to do a wrongful act," which might be hard to prove, assuming he's telling the truth. Also, the noise would have to be unreasonable because of its loudness, and not because of the content of the person's message.
  3. Likewise, intentional threats of violence are generally criminally punishable, but that too requires (at least under California law) a showing that the speaker intended to put people in fear.
  4. Webber's behavior might be grossly negligent, in that a reasonable person must have realized that it would create a danger—but, in quickly reviewing California law, I couldn't find any statute that would punish this.

So it may be that Webber can't actually be prosecuted here—again, if he really wasn't deliberately trying to put anyone in fear of violence—though I'd love to hear about any statutes I might have missed. (Certainly no-one has a First Amendment right to orate, whether about religion or anything else, on someone else's property, to an audience that came for an entirely different purpose; it just doesn't look like this particular behavior has indeed been outlawed.)

Thanks to Keith Flippin for the pointer.

NEXT: Did Donald Trump Jr. Admit to Violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act?

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  1. ” (Certainly no-one has a First Amendment right to orate, whether about religion or anything else, on someone else’s property, to an audience that came for an entirely different purpose; it just doesn’t look like this particular behavior has indeed been outlawed.)”

    So the protesters on college campuses that disrupt the intended speaker are also guilty of whatever it is the preacher is guilty of?

    1. Actually, there are special statute in many states (including California) that bar disturbing a lawful assembly or meeting, but I’m skeptical that this would cover a movie, especially if it happens after the movie was over, as appears to be the case here. (I know of no cases on that question.)

      1. Maybe the goons hired by the DNC to foment violence at Trump rallies would be a good example of disturbing a lawful assembly.

        1. Don’t you mean by (((Soros)))?

          1. I take it you don’t believe this happened?

            1. Turning organizing protestors into hiring goons to foment violence takes quite a few assumptions and some willful blindness about which side kept throwing the punches.

              1. Your response demonstrates zero awareness of or engagement with the facts and available evidence. Such engagement would be welcome, this is just fanciful assertion based on nothing.

                1. Your footstomping is no substitute for the facts.

                  Which I’m pretty sure you do not have, since you’re alleging something about the motives of the DNC you can only speculate about.

                  1. Ok, so you don’t know anything about the topic or you’re pretending not to. Thanks anyway.

        2. Trump supporters are perfectly able to disturb their own assemblies without outside help. Its the one thing they can actually accomplish in their lives.

  2. Any local ordinances about aggressive sales come-ons? Personally, treating this as that seems fair to me. If it isn’t an appropriate time and place for me to sell you a timeshare, then you selling me hellfire is also inappropriate. (Churches being an obvious exception to the rule. Many churches, at least.)

  3. Odd I don’t think there is any doubt that he intended to cause fear in the people there. In fact the whole point of the fire and brimstone preaching is to cause people to become afraid of what may happen to them. I am just not sure this type of fear, specifically the lack of an immediacy element is the type of fear the statute is intended to cover, or that the first amendment would allow it to cover.

    1. I think the concern is that the reference to “die tonight” might have made people think the speaker was about to do something to bring about that fatal situation.

      There *have* been cases of terrorists in movie theaters who kill people in the belief that such murders are doing God a service.

      If he were speaking in a different context – from a soapbox on the street, or a park, or (as some of these preachers do) on a campus, warning people of the wrath to come, it might seem less of a personal threat.

  4. “Certainly no-one has a First Amendment right to orate, whether about religion or anything else, on someone else’s property, to an audience that came for an entirely different purpose; it just doesn’t look like this particular behavior has indeed been outlawed.”

    If the property is commercial then the California Supreme Court has held that so long as one does not actively interfere or obstruct with the operation of the business then he can engage in constitutionally protected conduct. Which includes saying things we might not wish to hear, after the movie is over.

  5. I am so happy that someone posted legal opinion about this. It was in a God damned Holmes-cliche theater, yet 1A should prevail on 2 or 3 grounds especially because the speech was after the movie was over. I feel a little bit bad for the injured sinners but it wasn’t the messenger or message’s fault.

  6. “The most stringent protection of free speech would not permit someone to send draft-age men a copy of the 13th Amendment with a plea to assert their rights.”

    1. That’s from Schenck v. US (1919), right? Is that still good law? Or has that been effectively overturned by subsequent SCOTUS rulings?

      Because as both a normative and a constitutional issue, that seems stunningly wrong.

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