The Volokh Conspiracy

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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?"


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.