On Sept. 27, 2017, student group W&M Concerned Students , shut down Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, the executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, from speaking at my school, College of William & Mary. Gastañaga’s speech topic was, ironically, “Students and the First Amendment.” A few minutes into her speech, hecklers began shouting phrases at Gastañaga such as “the oppressed are not impressed,” and “shame, shame, shame, shame.” The group also chanted, “The revolution will not uphold the Constitution,” and “liberalism is white supremacy.”
The group’s statement regarding white supremacy referred to the ACLU of Virginia’s decision to represent white supremacist Jason Kessler. The ACLU state affiliate filed a lawsuit against the city of Charlottesville after it tried to revoke Kessler’s permit for the “Unite the Right” rally that took place in August 2017. In a post on the group’s Facebook page, the group stated, “Our protest of the ACLU event on September 27th was driven by our firm belief that white supremacy does not deserve a platform. The right to free speech is a fundamental human right. However, speech that condones, supports or otherwise fails to explicitly condemn injustice must be directly confronted.”
The group’s decision to deny Gastañaga the right to speak is part of a frightening trend that is growing on college campuses. Many collegiate groups are utilizing various disruptive tactics to effectively silence invited speakers, employing what is known as a “heckler’s veto.” This type of censorship occurs when a group becomes so disruptive or potentially dangerous that an event or speech cannot go forward, though it is significant to note that the student organization at William & Mary did not use, incite, or advocate violence. The use of the heckler’s veto imperils free speech on college campuses and inhibits effective social activism.
I support the idea of a peaceful protest of an event and encourage the exercise of our First Amendment right to demonstrate. However, this particular strategy of protest was not a constructive way to confront the ACLU of Virginia and its representation of white supremacists. To confront an issue, it is imperative to address it with your own concerns, reasoning, and logic. The affiliate’s statement on its Facebook page is a great example of what could have been voiced at the end of Gastañaga’s presentation, or publicized before her speaking engagement. Engaging in a debate about the actions of the ACLU and its consequences had the potential to be extremely constructive for all parties and could have addressed a number of the protesters’ concerns.
The rationale behind the group’s protest stems from the misguided belief that allowing hate groups to speak legitimizes their message. We must remember that “hate speech” has always been in existence and simply shutting down this speech does not prevent the ideas from existing. The only way to effectively deter hateful speech is by using our own First Amendment rights to speak out against these ideas. It is no anomaly that our concept of racist expression has evolved to encompass speech that was once commonplace. Utilizing demonstration and activism in the “marketplace of ideas” shifts cultural norms. When we socially condemn thoughts and ideas with our own speech, we can effectively limit the acceptance of an opposing group’s message by encouraging acceptance of our own message without actually infringing on an opponent’s free speech rights.
In the heat of anger, it is easy to forget that shutting down an opponent’s speech only emboldens them by making martyrs of those silenced. Even worse, we have the tendency to draw attention to these groups when they are censored. An unpopular speaker may only have a few attendees when speaking, but by shouting down the speaker and using our various media platforms to publicize the event, we have only further extended his or her message. Last year’s protests of Milo Yiannopoulos on the University of California, Berkeley campus is a recent example of this trend. After protests of a planned speech by the conservative former Breitbart editor erupted into violence, media outlets nationwide rushed to cover the event and, consequently, helped to spread Yiannopoulos’s disparaging remarks about Muslims, minority students, and members of the transgender community, among other groups.
This is a theme that has indirectly contributed to the increasing polarization of political beliefs in contemporary America. When individuals live in a society where they cannot voice ideas or opinions, they are less likely to be confronted with arguments that challenge their beliefs. A false paradigm is perpetuated when activists believe that shutting down opposing speech benefits their own activism. In actuality, utilizing the heckler’s veto limits activism by encouraging a negative cycle where opposing activist groups will “no-platform” each other in order to advance their own messages. Activism is about pushing society’s ideas forward and helping to evolve norms. It requires the intersection between currently accepted beliefs and a new set of ideas. If society subscribes to censorship as a norm, we will never create an intersection of thought and we will be unable to confront the hateful beliefs of some members of our society.
It is now more important than ever that we engage in effective activism, utilizing our platforms to promote our beliefs instead of denying another’s platform. With the power of expression, activism has historically been successful in advancing social justice. The Civil Rights Movement, LGBTQ rights movement, and anti-Vietnam War college campus protests are excellent examples of the power of persuasion and discourse. Each campaign respectively faced hateful speech, and used it as a foil to further their own progressive ideas.
Some argue that allowing the propagation of intolerant rhetoric leads to its acceptance. However, declining to censor intolerant messages does not equate to tolerating them. As responsible citizens, we must demonstrate, speak, and utilize various forms of expression to socially condemn intolerant speech. These tactics are the means by which we stymie acceptance of intolerant speech. Heckling is simply a poor activism tactic, even when it confronts a disagreeable message. It is only by consistently highlighting the negative consequences of hateful speech and endorsing a message of equality that we force hateful rhetoric into the minority.
Rahul Truter is a rising senior at The College of William and Mary