Last week, a club-sponsored speaking event at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst made news when a group of protesters repeatedly interrupted the speaker. According to the Daily Collegian, protesters distributed literature in advance of the talk, which they read aloud as a call-and-response that drowned out the speaker several times over the course of the 90-minute lecture. The next day, student columnist Gavin Beeker penned an excellent column highlighting the folly of the protesters’ heckler‘s veto:
The thing I love about UMass is that one can find people from every cultural and political persuasion; this diversity of outlook keeps debate lively […] It is for this reason that I am a bit puzzled, and frankly dismayed, upon reading a Daily Collegian article about the actions of the Occupy and labor studies activists at a lecture on the merits of free capitalism last week.
From what I could gather from the article, activists went in with a predetermined goal to present their dissatisfaction with the basic tenets of the lecture. This in itself seems fair and reasonable – to symbolically show an opposition to the ideas presented. But the activists went further, disrupting the speaker and monopolizing the question-and-answer session with, as the Daily Collegian reported, "long-winded soliloquies." What could have been an opportunity for lively debate about the relative merits of competing philosophies instead denigrated into divisiveness and bile.
The concept of a heckler’s veto is often misunderstood, particularly on college campuses, but Beeker is spot-on: Students can protest a speaker that they disagree with, but the protest may not disrupt an event to the point that it obstructs the speaker from expressing his views. Some allowance for heckling in a speech is important, but as a general rule, sustained, planned, and repeated disruptions likely go too far. Beeker’s headline sums up the issue nicely: "Free speech includes ideas you don’t like, too." Hopefully, his fellow students at UMass Amherst will take note.