Last week, Whittier College — my alma mater — hosted California’s Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, in a question-and-answer session organized by Ian Calderon, the Majority Leader of the California State Assembly.
They tried to, anyway.
The event ended early after pro-Trump hecklers, upset about Becerra’s lawsuit against the Trump administration over DACA, continuously shouted slogans and insults at Becerra and Calderon. A group affiliated with the hecklers later boasted that the speakers were “SHOUTED DOWN BY FED-UP CALIFORNIANS” and that the “meeting became so raucous that it ended about a half hour early.”
The event, held in Whittier College’s Shannon Center theater, was free and open to members of the community, and featured introductions from both Whittier’s president and student body president. Becerra and Calderon were to have an hour-long question-and-answer session using audience questions randomly selected from a basket. As soon as they began the discussion, however, hecklers decked in “Make America Great Again” hats began a continuous and persistent chorus of boos, slogans, and insults.
Video captured by an alumnus captures the difficulty of hearing the discussion:
Video uploaded by two of the hecklers, Arthur C. Schaper and Harim Uzziel, captures the entirety of the affair, complete with chanted slogans and insults, such as “lock him up,” “build that wall,” “obey the law,” “respect our president,” “Americans first,” and “You must respect our president!” It also captures audience members repeatedly asking the hecklers to stop, and campus security officials approaching the group. Another video posted by “We the People Rising” also captured much of the disruption:
Calderon asked the audience to hold applause or booing, remarking: “It’s important that we have a productive conversation here.” Becerra said that he thought the First Amendment to be a “precious thing,” but said he doubted the audience could hear him speak. The event, scheduled for an hour, concluded after about 34 minutes.
Schaper, a conservative columnist, is known for leading disruptions targeting Democratic officials, and was recently charged with disrupting a public meeting. For example, he disrupted a congresswoman’s “Know Your Rights” forum, intended to give information to undocumented immigrants. “It was offensive,” Schaper told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune. “[The congresswoman] took an oath to uphold [the] Constitution, and now she’s sponsoring a town hall that teaches illegal aliens about rights they don’t have.”
As the Los Angeles Times described:
Schaper is part of the resistance to the resistance, a Californian who delights in upending city council meetings in so-called sanctuary cities and shouting down Democratic politicians.
Schaper is so abrasive that the local Republican Party has disavowed him. But he is indicative of the growing extremism of debate in the Trump era, when the president’s supporters and detractors in California have waged violent, vitriolic protests in Berkeley, Huntington Beach and elsewhere.
Schaper, a 36-year-old unemployed Torrance resident and blogger, usually shows up at public meetings in his red Make America Great Again cap, wearing a Trump flag as a cape. He records his escapades on cellphone video, narrating in real time as he trolls in real life.
He and roughly a dozen supporters and anti-illegal immigration activists have become a particularly unwelcome presence at city council meetings in places with large Latino immigrant populations such as Cudahy, El Monte and Huntington Park.
In recent weeks, they have shouted down a Riverside speech by state Senate leader Kevin de León (screaming “Anchor baby!”) and a Redondo Beach town hall by Democratic U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu.
“I am prepared to be an uncivil civilian, and I don’t care who’s offended,” Schaper wrote recently. “Civility, accommodation, and playing nice with Republican and Democratic elected officials is over . . . . Making America great again is not about placating and pleasing everyone, but standing up for what is right, even if it means disrupting a few tea parties.”
It’s a tactic that Schaper is willing to deploy on campus, and comes days after students at the College of William and Mary disrupted a discussion about free speech with a speaker from the ACLU. But while Schaper didn’t sympathize much with either the protesters or the ACLU in that case, he’s condemned disruptive tactics when they targeted conservatives. Writing about a recent appearance by Ben Shapiro, Schaper wrote:
If you don’t like what you hear, you are free not to listen. You are not entitled, however, to shut down someone else’s exercise of liberty, whether in speech, the press, individual conscience, etc. America is indeed a safe space, you liberal pussy-hat wearing snowflakes. [...] Leftist organizations smear un-leftist rhetoric as “hate speech” in order to shut down the opposition and remove all challenges. [...] The “hate speech” controversy definitely explains why Middlebury College snowflakes shut down Charles Murray earlier this month.
Or, in the context of a professor facing censorial investigations, Schaper wrote that “[a]nyone who disagrees with the University Code, the New World Order of radical, left-wing progressivism is shouted down, silenced, and eliminated.”
Elected officials shouldn’t be kept from critics, even very loud and obnoxious critics, on or off of a college campus. The First Amendment specifically protects the right to demand a redress of grievances, and government should not have the power to punish any and every instance of incivility or protest — including during meetings and discussions on a college campus. But the right to criticize and protest public officials does not encompass a right to intentionally prevent a speaker from addressing an audience in a closed space.
As the California Supreme Court observed in upholding the constitutionality of the state’s disturbance-of-meetings statute, authorities cannot punish every instance of protest at a public meeting. Brief expressions of disapproval contribute to the exchange of ideas without preventing the speaker from sharing his or her views in a closed space with an audience that wants to hear them. Moreover, if authorities can punish brief expressions of disapproval, it would amount to de facto viewpoint discrimination: an audience member applauding a speaker wouldn’t be punished, but someone who boos a particular remark would be. Authorities could not arrest the guy who yells “Judas!” at Bob Dylan while ignoring those who cheer for him.
But, as the California Supreme Court explained, authorities are not powerless to penalize substantial, material, and intentional disruptions:
Under most circumstances, of course, ordinary good taste and decorum would dictate that a person addressing a meeting not be interrupted or otherwise disturbed. The Constitution does not require that any person, however lofty his motives, be permitted to obstruct the convention or continuation of a meeting without regard to the implicit customs and usage or explicit rules governing its conduct. [...] The constitutional guarantees of the free exercise of religious opinion, and of the rights of the people peaceably to assemble and petition for a redress of grievances, would be worth little if outsiders could disrupt and prevent such a meeting in disregard of the customs and rules applicable to it. [...] This inhibition does not mean, however, that the state can grant to the police a “roving commission” to enforce Robert’s Rules of Order, [...] since other First Amendment interests are likewise at stake.
Audience activities, such as heckling, interrupting, harsh questioning, and booing, even though they may be impolite and discourteous, can nonetheless advance the goals of the First Amendment. For many citizens such participation in public meetings, whether supportive or critical of the speaker, may constitute the only manner in which they can express their views to a large number of people; the Constitution does not require that the effective expression of ideas be restricted to rigid and predetermined patterns. [...] A cogent remark, even though rudely timed or phrased, may “contribute to the free interchange of ideas and the ascertainment of truth.”
Since the Constitution indubitably affords some measure of protection to the free expression of all those present at a meeting—speakers, officials, and audience—[the statute prohibiting] “disturbances” [of meetings] potentially may collide with safeguarded First Amendment interests. [...] Nonetheless, the state retains a legitimate concern in ensuring that some individuals’ unruly assertion of their rights of free expression does not imperil other citizens’ rights of free association and discussion. [...] Freedom of everyone to talk at once can destroy the right of anyone effectively to talk at all. Free expression can expire as tragically in the tumult of license as in the silence of censorship.
The conduct here is a good example of this kind of interference. Although asked repeatedly by campus security officers to let the event proceed, the hecklers here persisted, preventing the audience from being able to question their elected officials. If every appearance by an elected official spirals into sustained heckling intended to prevent the speech, the utility of appearing at all is diminished, and officials will be even less inclined to face their constituents. It’s disappointing to see hecklers again interfere with the ability of students, faculty, and community members to hear from — and seriously question — their elected representatives.
Whittier College said in a statement:
Whittier College strongly values and promotes debate and civil conversation. Through exchange of ideas and listening carefully to people offering a different point of view we learn. Perhaps students who were at the event learned something about why Whittier urges students to listen and learn from others, and when confronted with differences to try to find common ground.
Unfortunately, Schaper and others weren’t interested in an exchange of views. Instead, they engaged in a “heckler’s veto” — a form of censorship FIRE emphatically condemns.
FIRE, a free speech non profit, effectively and decisively defends the fundamental rights of tens of thousands of students and faculty members on our nation’s campuses while simultaneously reaching millions on and off campus through education, outreach, and college reform efforts.