(Hoodr via Wikimedia Commons, CC-By-SA-3.0/Modified from original.)
Amid a spate of recent college speaker shoutdowns and cancellations comes news that Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a prominent conservative radio host, was interrupted by protesters during an April 25 speech at Woodside, California’s Cañada College. Lapin had been invited by the campus chapter of Young Americans for Freedom.
Video of the protesters shows them sustaining a chant of “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, fascist leader go away!” According to one local newspaper, The Almanac, the Cañada protesters and some audience members who came to hear Lapin exchanged words for 20 minutes. With the speech unable to continue as planned, a small group of attendees reconvened in a different room, where the rabbi spoke for 30 minutes.
Following the incident, another local newspaper reported that while security did not step in to stop the disruption, San Mateo County Community College District spokesperson Mitchell Bailey said Cañada College would pursue disciplinary charges against students who shut down the speech.
“While the college is continuing to gather information about the behavior of some attendees, the students who disrupted the event did so in violation of college and district policies,” Bailey told the Daily Journal. “They will face disciplinary action through the college’s established discipline processes.”
FIRE vigorously defends the rights of individuals to protest any person or idea they choose, but protests may not silence others. When protests cross from peaceful, nondisruptive expression into intentional and sustained attempts to stop the speech altogether, they lose First Amendment protection.
Unfortunately, this episode at Cañada College is only the latest example of the trend of student protestors employing the “heckler’s veto” choosing to shut down speakers with whom they disagree, rather than taking the opportunity to engage with them by asking tough questions or simply ignoring them altogether. Just this year, the heckler’s veto has been deployed at UC Berkeley (twice), Middlebury College, and Claremont McKenna College.
Suppressing Lapin’s speech certainly didn’t change his mind, and it all but certainly didn’t change the mind of anyone who came to listen to him. Open dialogue is at the heart of our liberal democracy, and should be the first and foremost tool of those advocating for change. By deploying the heckler’s veto, the protestors at Cañada College not only opened themselves up to discipline, they squandered an opportunity to change minds.