Saturday, June 23, 2007

Cry Fire

You can't yell 'Fire' in a crowded hall. Everyone uses that analogy to describe the limits of free speech. And you don't call a man an arsonist in a crowded pub.

Joseph Murphy was having a drink (or several) in a Leitrim pub when Eoin McManus sauntered in. They got to talking, as men will do over a pint, and before long, the topic shifted to a recent arson attack at a local quarry. Someone burned out a couple of excavators, and Mr. Murphy declared that it was not Eoin or his missus who done the burning. No, it was his brother Michael, the "buck from Sligo" who committed the crime. Mr. Murphy knew it was Michael done it, and he was going to catch up with the arsonist.

Tell one man something in a pub, and the whole town knows of it before the night is over. Everyone who had stopped in at Flynn's Pub after a funeral were suddenly made aware that their neighbor Michael McManus had set fire to machinery and caused damage. And there was the man's brother, drinking in the pub, being told that his brother was a criminal. From the pub, and out into the street, word spread.

After a week or two, Mr. Murphy rang up Mr. McManus and apologized. It was the drink talking, not Joseph Murphy, and he was wrong to have let his tongue wag without putting a leash on it.

In court, Mr. Murphy claimed that he never said any such thing about Michael McManus being an arsonist. As far as he could judge, it was just a case of extortion and blackmail, with Mr. McManus trying to put the squeeze on him and making some unjustified claims. That notion, however, failed to explain why Mr. Murphy rang up Mr. McManus and apologized for speaking out of turn, and the jury saw it that way as well.

Free speech is priceless. For Mr. Murphy, the price of his speech has been set at EU300,000. His legal team plans to appeal the ruling.

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