FIRE and Others Debate the Heckler’s Veto in ‘Inside Higher Ed’

By on February 17, 2010

Scott Jaschik has a very interesting article in Inside Higher Ed today, prompted by the organized disruption of a speech at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), by Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States. Adam discussed the incident in a previous Torch entry, and you can see video of the interruptions in question here.

As Jaschik’s article illustrates, there are a variety of attitudes (some principled, some not) on the rights of citizens to interrupt and effectively shut down those with whom they disagree.

"The students voiced political views to shame the representative of a foreign government embroiled in controversy for its outrageous violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. Delivering this message in a loud and shocking manner expressed the gravity of the charges leveled against Israeli policies, and falls within the purview of protected speech," said a letter released by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. That statement followed one by Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which said: "These students had the courage and conscience to stand up against aggression, using peaceful means. We cannot allow our educational institutions to be used as a platform to threaten and discourage students who choose to practice their First Amendment right."

Those statements are quite different from the view of Irvine officials. Michael Drake, the chancellor, had this to say after the interruptions: "This behavior is intolerable. Freedom of speech is among the most fundamental, and among the most cherished, of the bedrock values our nation is built upon. A great university depends on the free exchange of ideas. This is non-negotiable. Those who attempt to suppress the rights of others violate core principles that are the foundation of any learning community. We cannot and do not allow such behavior."

FIRE, of course, takes the latter position, which Jaschik quotes:

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education blog featured similar views: "Failing to punish offenders appropriately is likely to threaten the free speech of future speakers by effectively condoning a ‘heckler’s veto’ through disruptive actions. That would make a mockery of the First Amendment."

Fortunately, UCI has taken this view as well, and is making clear to the UCI community that such displays of intolerance are unwelcome and will be dealt with accordingly. To do otherwise would be to declare open season on controversial viewpoints.

Cary Nelson, President of the American Association of University Professors, adds an important point, however, with which FIRE agrees: Though there is no First Amendment right to disrupt and shut down speakers, the rights of citizens to signal their opposition must also be protected, so long as it does not prevent the speaker from expressing his views. As Jaschik reports:

Nelson said he was a fan of the speech/protest policy of the University of Michigan. That policy says: "Within the confines of a hall or physical facility, or in the vicinity of the place in which a member of the university community, invited speaker, or invited artist is addressing an assembled audience, protesters must not interfere unduly with communication between a speaker or artist and members of the audience. This prohibition against undue interference does not include suppression of the usual range of human reactions commonly displayed by an audience during heated discussions of controversial topics. Nor does this prohibition include various expressions of protest, including heckling and the display of signs (without sticks or poles), so long as such activities are consistent with the continuation of a speech or performance and the communication of its content to the audience."

Along these lines, Nelson said that some brief demonstration against a speaker doesn’t strike him as an assault on free speech "so long as the speaker is allowed to continue." He added that "an interruption that signals extreme objection to a speaker’s views is part of the acceptable intellectual life of a campus, but you have to let the speech go on," and he said that he did not believe that repeated interruptions were appropriate in that they would disrupt a talk. "Free speech doesn’t mean you are able to trample a campus event."

In a separate piece on the Hudson New York blog, Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz makes the same point:

There are several rights at stake in any such case. First is the right of the speaker, who has been invited by the university to present his point of view. Second is the right of the audience to hear his point of view. Third is the right of audience members who disagree with his point of view to express opposition. These rights need not be in conflict, so long as there is no effort to prevent the speaker from conveying his point of view to the audience.

This is important, and universities must be careful to strike this balance. Had UCI indiscriminately removed protesters who were reasonably making their opposition known without disrupting Oren’s speech, FIRE would have come to the students’ defense.

That wasn’t the case here, though. The video of the event shows a clearly coordinated disruption effort, and it’s doubtful that the protesters had any desire to let Oren finish his speech. Had the protesters heeded Nelson’s and Dershowitz’s words, I might be here writing about the civil exchange of opposing views on a controversial topic. Better luck next time, I guess, and FIRE hopes the regrettable incident at UCI serves as a lesson learned for other student protesters.