The movement to heckle and silence speakers on campus was ratcheted up on March 2 after a group of students stormed the stage at a University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) event hosted by Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich. One student allegedly assaulted Salesforce.com founder Marc Benioff during the incident:
Benioff was on campus to participate in the public forum intended to explore the creative culture of the Bay Area through conversations with other leading cultural figures from the community, including musical artist Bassnectar and Buddhist priest Peter Coyote.
In an op-ed published in The Daily Californian yesterday, a group of students, administrators, and faculty members condemned the actions of members of Berkeley’s Student Labor Committee (SLC), who allegedly used physical violence to try and enforce “a heckler’s veto” against the speakers in order to shut down the event.
A heckler’s veto occurs when a would-be speaker is prevented from being heard by those opposed to his or her views. As FIRE’s Susan Kruth previously noted, “Though critics have a right to add their voices to any debate, contributing to the ‘marketplace of ideas’ that universities are meant to be, they may not supplant others’ expression with their own and interfere with the right of others to hear the speaker’s message.”
According to The Daily Californian op-ed, a group of SLC students did precisely that when they shouted and rushed the stage while Ulrich was interviewing Benioff. In videos of the incident, it appears one student was able to bypass police and grab Benioff before being restrained. Videos of the encounter were captured by The Daily Californian and a member of the audience.
SLC’s heckler’s veto was allegedly part of a larger protest against the perceived unfair labor practices associated with hiring subcontracted workers on campus. As part of their protest, a UC labor union called for a speakers boycott through the spring semester.
SLC staged an on-campus protest during the Ulrich-hosted forum, according to Rolling Stone. Ulrich was aware of the protest and, before beginning the event, offered the stage to anyone who “wished to be heard.” One student accepted the invitation before Ulrich proceeded with the event. The heckler’s veto occurred later during the forum.
“All groups at UC Berkeley have the right to free expression, but none have the right to prevent others from doing likewise, least of all by using violence,” wrote the authors of The Daily Californian op-ed. “It is a moral obligation of anyone who cares about the free exchange of ideas, the cornerstone of any democratic society, to condemn such behavior in unambiguous terms. Be it on our performance stages or in our classrooms, we hold true to our principles of the vital exchange of ideas.”
As FIRE’s Director of Litigation Catherine Sevcenko wrote for The Torch just yesterday, “The freedom to speak also includes the freedom for others to listen.” In that sense, nobody has a First Amendment right to engage in mob censorship to shut down a speaker. Assault in any context is a crime—not the kind of expressive conduct the First Amendment protects. Catherine quoted Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, who wrote that “[t]he freedom to speak and the freedom to hear are inseparable; they are two sides of the same coin.” Kleindienst v. Mandel, 408 U.S. 753, 775 (1972) (Marshall, J., dissenting).
This is not the first time FIRE has seen a heckler’s veto of this sort on campus. This isn’t even the first veto of its kind at UC Berkeley in recent years. In 2014, protesters disrupted an event with entrepreneur Peter Thiel (although in that case, no assault was alleged). As FIRE’s Susan Kruth wrote at the time, “The best answer to speech with which one disagrees is more speech—not censorship.”
Unfortunately, the student group that organized the protest on March 2 does not feel the same way about mob censorship. A status posted on the group’s Facebook page following the incident appears to try and justify their actions:
And the group’s attempts at shutting down speakers didn’t seem to stop with the March 2 event. On March 12, SLC posted a photo of the group captioned, “Disrupting the (Wealthy) Women in Leadership Conference this morning … .”
UC Berkeley is the home to the 1960s campus free speech movement—a movement with a legacy upheld by community members, such as the authors of yesterday’s op-ed, who reject the use of mob censorship to silence speakers on campus.