Welcome to the new academic year of campus shoutdowns. Continuing a disturbing pattern of shoutdowns and shut-downs on U.S. college campuses last year, protesters at Maryland’s Washington College allegedly disrupted a campus speaker so substantially that the event was forced to end early.
FIRE is gathering more information about exactly what led to the effective cancellation of an annual lecture at Washington College featuring Robert George, a Princeton professor of politics. But what the public reporting indicates is that after a group of protesters entered the venue and drowned out the talk by playing loud music, shouting, and holding up signs, George was forced to end the lecture and was escorted from the venue. The protesters reportedly objected to George’s status as a board member at the conservative Heritage Foundation and accused him of hate speech against the LGBTQ+ community by thinking “being queer is beneath human dignity.”
The event’s organizer, Washington College professor Joseph Prud’homme, unsuccessfully attempted to reason with the disruptive protesters, before escorting George from the venue.
When hecklers censor speeches, they violate both a speaker’s right to deliver their speech and the right of those in attendance to listen.
Worse yet, campus security reportedly stood by and watched the disruption happen, even though Washington College’s Protests and Demonstrations policy explicitly states that it “will intervene in the conduct of protests and demonstrations when others are deprived of their rights[.]” Campus security later said they did not want to “escalate the situation” by confronting the protesters.
Afterward, to the college’s credit, it publicly acknowledged the shoutdown of the event was unacceptable. A Washington College spokesman said the disruption was “not consistent with the core values of the liberal arts to which Washington College is committed,” and that the college had sent out an email ahead of time warning students that disrupting the event would violate the Student Honor Code.
But simply issuing warnings and post hoc condemnations when disruptions proved those warnings were toothless is not enough. That’s why FIRE wrote Washington College yesterday urging it to educate employees, and especially security staff, about their obligation to enforce the college’s speaker policies that promise it will intervene to ensure expressive events proceed on campus as planned. Importantly, this requires understanding exactly when students’ peaceful protest—which is protected speech and should always be allowed on campus—crosses the line into unprotected misconduct, as it did here. As we told the college:
None of this, of course, negates the need to equally protect peaceful protest, or that not even all protest during a speech is sufficiently disruptive to warrant intervention. For example, protestors who hold signs in the back of an auditorium, or offer fleeting commentary, are unlikely to be so disruptive as to prevent an event from proceeding. But when the event cannot proceed as planned because protesters talk over speakers, drown them out with other sounds, or cause other disruptions that substantially impede the ability to deliver remarks, Washington College must use the resources at its disposal to prevent this pernicious form of mob censorship, and to ensure audiences can, at the very least, hear the speakers talk. Would-be disruptors must know the College will not tolerate the heckler’s veto, and that it will take swift action to remove anyone who violates its policies.
This incident comes on the heels of last year’s many high-profile examples of the heckler’s veto in action. Perhaps the most prominent example was at Stanford University Law School, where protestors significantly disrupted Fifth Circuit Judge Kyle Duncan while he attempted to give a talk, leading to the event ending early. Other examples include protesters’ substantial disruption of swimmer Riley Gaines during an appearance at San Francisco State University where protesters screamed and chanted to interrupt her talk, then followed her into the hallway outside the venue, further accosting her after she ended her speech early. In fall 2022, political pundit Ann Coulter also saw her appearance at Cornell cut short because of disruptions.
Needless to say, substantially disruptive protests that silence opposing views do not constitute the “more speech” approach that First Amendment advocates promote as the answer to speech that some find objectionable. Instead, disruptive protests constitute an unprotected heckler’s veto — interruption of an event so significant that the event is effectively censored.
When hecklers censor speeches, they violate both a speaker’s right to deliver their speech and the right of those in attendance to listen. As the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall once wrote, “The freedom to speak and the freedom to hear are inseparable; they are two sides of the same coin.”
Washington College’s speech-protective speaker policy suggests they understand this important principle — but they must actually enforce it. Further, educating students on their expressive rights and obligations will, hopefully, help the college avoid needing to enforce the Protests and Demonstrations policy’s protective measures altogether.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).