Shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre

Whenever free speech is being discussed, the old saw “you’re not free to shout ‘fire!’ in a crowded theatre” pops up. But what about discussing the best ways to start a fire in a theatre? Is that irresponsible too?

The Freakonomics blog over at the New York Times is asking, “If you were a terrorist, how would you attack?” and some people aren’t happy. TB’s response is typical:

Brainstorming clever ideas for terrorists is hardly the most effective use of your blog. You are a very clever researcher, why lend your brains to the terrorists cause? Perhaps it is true that they would think up these ideas themselves. But even if they learn one new idea, this is irresponsible.

I’m interested in this for two reasons: firstly, because I’m interested in this stuff anyway, and secondly because occasionally I write about electronic terrorism, the way terror cells use the internet, that sort of thing. So for example back in 2001 I did a piece for .net about electronic warfare, and 9/11 happened as the piece was being sub-edited. We took some things out – there was a section on bringing down planes – but that was more to do with taste and timing than a belief that terrorists subscribed to .net and would think “aha!”.

Elsewhere, I’ve blogged about or been in online discussions about terrorism and security, and long before the Glasgow airport bombers decided to target the terminal I’ve had online chats about the way in which airport queues make a much softer target than anything airside, post-security. To me, this stuff is so obvious censorship (or self-censorship) isn’t an issue – any would-be terrorist with half a brain could see it, and the likelihood of a blog or messageboard post being on their reading list is pretty remote.

That said, the current climate makes discussions about terrorism dangerous. Not so much because there’s a risk of giving mad bombers ideas (it isn’t hard to find and download all kinds of heavy-duty terror stuff), but more because of the way in which perfectly decent documents are seen as terror manuals in the eyes of the law.

Under UK law, you can go to jail for ten years for possessing a document  “containing information likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”. I’ve possessed documents like that – detailed stuff on cyberterror from the Chinese intelligence services, US documents outlining terrorism threats, EU research into the Echelon surveillance network, etc etc etc, all of which is widely and legally available online; they’re published documents from government agencies and related groups, not how-tos put together by cave-dwelling crazies  – and I’ve written articles discussing some of the things in those documents. Under section 58 of the terrorism act, could those articles  be “useful”? Could a blog discussion about potential terror targets fall under that law? Could an article naming forums where terrorists hang out fall under it?

What do you think? Is talking about terrorism useful to terrorists? Does your right to free speech stop when you discuss the best ways to start fires in crowded theatres? Should anybody writing about security or just discussing the plot of Die Hard 4.0 be scared shitless by the word “useful”?

(sorry if this is a bit rambly btw – it’s early and I’m not fully coffeed up yet) 

2 thoughts on “Shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre

  1. Tim Worstall says:

    “Under section 58 of the terrorism act, could those articles be “useful”? Could a blog discussion about potential terror targets fall under that law? Could an article naming forums where terrorists hang out fall under it?”

    Yes. And all because those who make our laws have shit for brains.

  2. Martijn says:

    Ideas are everywere, on the web and in real life.
    After every ‘terrorist attack’ some one will mention things like; “it’s good they blew up the train, the plain that was leaving at the same moment had much more people on board.”
    If someone would then quote this person in a newspaper, everyone buying the newspaper should be arrested on that British law. Becouse maybe next time terrorists will compare the flight and train schedules!
    Uh-ohw, I’m afraid I just published an idea for them?

    Sometimes these things can go a little far. Be honest, when you watch a lot of detectives on TV you’ll learn about murders aswell? We were watching ‘Murder She Wrote’ with some guys from the class and soon started talking about what the murderers did wrong.
    ;; Yes, now go and arrest everyone with a TV becouse they’ve probably seen at least 1 action or detective!

    And how about books? Those small thrillers or detectives we read in the bathroom? We can read one every hour, maybe 10 a day, read about 10 different ways to kill other people and 10 times what’s wrong with them. In the end you’ll come up with some plan.
    ;; Yes, now go and arrest everyone possessing any book that touches the subject of someone who dies by an other humans hand. Don’t forget the ones that have read atleast 1 in there life!

    What’s left? A very cultural world? Not really… You know that fine little museum in town, abouw how your time fight in the war and kept itself up? Oops, weapons and dieing people.
    ;; Yes, burn down every museum and arrest all the people that ever visited one of them!

    Now, the same goes for libraries with all those books. Schools with all those history teachers. Children who once listened to those history teachers. The list is almost endless.

    My point after this somewhat long post, all those rules can go too far.

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