2014: The Year of the Heckler

By December 18, 2014

By Greg Lukianoff at The Huffington Post

It’s somehow fitting that 2014 should end with one of the most spectacular exercises of the heckler’s veto in recent history.

As you may have heard, Sony Pictures has scrapped the release of its new film The Interview after a well-publicized hack of their private emails by a group calling itself “Guardians of Peace” and chilling threats to visit 9/11-style violence on American citizens if the movie was shown. Although he has not openly acknowledged his role in the attack, U.S. officials claim they “have found linkage to the North Korean government” and, doubtlessly, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is all too happy that the movie has been suppressed.

Last June, North Korea’s ambassador to the U.N., Ja Song Nam, demanded the United States censor the film, referring to it as an “act of war.” Censorship requests like this one are not new for North Korea; North Korean officials demanded a ban of the movie Team America: World Police in the Czech Republic due to its depiction of Kim Jong-il. That attempt failed, but unfortunately it seems that other censorship attempts, including the one against The Interview, are succeeding. New Regency Productions, fearful after the attack on Sony, has now also canceled the production of a Steve Carell-led thriller that was set to take place in North Korea.

The term “heckler’s veto” historically refers to attempts by angry members of a crowd to shut down a public speech. It has evolved to encompass any occasion when a minority of people try to shut down expression through inappropriate means because they dislike the speech in question. The defining quality of this sort of heckler is arrogance, since they assume that, because they dislike a work of art, opinion, or idea, no one else should hear it.

In my field, free speech on campus, heckler’s vetoes have been a major theme this year. All year I have been covering “disinvitation season,” my organization’s term for the annual attempts by students and/or faculty to keep speakers they dislike (commencement or otherwise) from speaking on campus.

All of this seemed to go into high gear a little more than a year ago when a group of students at Brown University prevented former New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly from speaking at Brown because of NYC’s “stop and frisk” policy. I fully understand the students’ objections to Kelly, but he had already agreed to take an hour of questions after his speech. If students really wanted to take on Kelly’s position, he and Brown gave them the chance to do so in a constructive way. Shouting him down (literally exercising a “heckler’s veto” in the old-fashioned sense) achieved nothing good.

But it did achieve something not-so-good. It sent the signal to students and faculty all over the country that threats of disruption were an effective way to impose their will over who should be allowed to speak on their campus. And the message was heeded.

For example, at Haverford College, students opposed to the choice of Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, as commencement speaker boldly presented Birgeneau with an astounding nine conditions to meet in order to support his campus appearance. Students at Smith College, likewise, made it clear they did not want Christine Lagarde, the first female managing director of the International Monetary Fund, to be commencement speaker, starting an online petition that eventually led Lagarde to step down as speaker.

And as we close out the year, we’re waiting to hear if comedian Bill Maher, the highest-profile target of this season’s disinvitation push, will speak at UC Berkeley as scheduled on Saturday. Though Maher has said he intends to go on as planned, as Inoted last month, he left open the possibility that he would bow out if the speech became a circus. The recent incident in which somewhat confused protesters at Berkeley chased off Paypal founder Peter Thiel shows that this could easily happen.

Hecklers (in a more metaphorical sense) have also made news lately at Harvard, where, as a professor recently wrote in The New Yorker, professors have begun to turn away from teaching the law of sexual assault because the topic was making so many students uncomfortable. Of course, there is no way to make discussions of sexual assault–or many other violent crimes–totally comfortable for everyone. And as Professor Jeannie Suk correctly pointed out, “If the topic of sexual assault were to leave the law-school classroom, it would be a tremendous loss–above all to victims of sexual assault.”

Other examples from just this week include the ongoing case at the University of Iowain which anti-racist art was censored because it was considered offensive and the unsuccessful attempt to get George Will dis-invited from speaking at Michigan State University. The list goes on, both on and off campus.

The problem with granting heckler’s vetoes over speech is that it incentivizes threats of disruption or violence from the least tolerant members of our society. As the Supreme Court astutely observed, it is perverse to protect speech in general but then refuse to protect that speech which is “unpopular with bottle throwers.” In doing so, you pretty much guarantee that there will be a lot more bottles to be thrown. After all, they know it works!

That’s why all Americans should be taken aback by what’s happened here. A hacker group that appears to be backed by a ruthless, yet insecure foreign dictator has successfully stopped the showing of an American work of art (yep, even Seth Rogen films count as art) through illegal hacking and threats of violence. In granting the wishes of our cartoonishly villainous foe, we have all but guaranteed more such threats in the future.