Table of Contents

The recent concert cancellations of Jewish rapper Matisyahu reflect a continuing threat to free expression

This is the heckler’s veto at its best, and the culture of free speech at its worst.
Matisyahu performs at Sole Hotel Miami in 2016


Matisyahu performing at the Sole Hotel Miami in 2016.

Jewish reggae and hip-hop artist Matisyahu made headlines last week after two of his upcoming live performances were suddenly canceled — one at the Rialto Theatre in Tucson, Arizona, and the other at Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The venues cited “safety concerns” and “staff shortages” when they pulled the plug mere hours before the shows were about to begin.

But Matisyahu believes his speech was the real reason behind it.

vocal supporter of Israel, the singer’s commentary since the events of October 7 drew the ire of pro-Palestine activists, who planned to protest outside at least one of the venues during his performance. Matisyahu believes the threat of a protest likely contributed to these last-minute staffing issues.

In a statement posted to X, formerly known as Twitter, he said that “the staff at these venues refused to come to work, forcing cancellations” and that “they do this because they are either anti-Semitic or have confused their empathy for the Palestinian people with hatred for someone like me who holds empathy for both Israelis and Palestinians.” Matisyahu also said that his team “offered to supplement their staff shortages on [their] own dime, but to no avail.”

In a followup statement posted this week, he referenced another venue being vandalized in an attempt to force a cancellation. 

“It is truly a sad day,” Matisyahu said in his original post, “when dialogue with those you disagree with is abandoned for hate mongering and silencing artistic expression.”

It’s difficult to disagree — especially given the fact that this isn’t an isolated incident:

  • In November, the Dallas Comedy Club in Texas suddenly canceled comedian Dauood Naimyar’s two-night gig, with the promoter citing social media posts from Naimyar that included jokes critical of Israeli government action in Gaza. 
  • This month, the Apollo Theater in London canceled British author and journalist Douglas Murray’s pro-Israel fundraiser after employees received emailed threats. 
  • The Jewish author Nathan Thrall, who has been critical of Israel, had nearly a quarter of his planned book tour events canceled by venues this past fall amid safety concerns.
  • In November, a Los Angeles screening of the short film “Bearing Witness” by Israeli actress Gal Gadot was met with social media calls for the event’s cancellation and violence outside the venue.

These cancellations and disruptions are the heckler’s veto at its best, and the culture of free speech at its worst.

Constitutional law professor Eugene Volokh quotes from Black’s Law Dictionary to explain that a “heckler’s veto” has two related meanings — one pertaining more to the First Amendment, and the other to the broader culture of free speech. In the legal realm, it is the“government's restriction or curtailment of a speaker's right to freedom of speech when necessary to prevent possibly violent reactions from listeners.” Culturally, however, a heckler’s veto is “an interruptive or disruptive act by a private person intending to prevent a speaker from being heard, such as shouting down the speaker, hurling personal insults, and carrying on loud side-conversations.”

It’s also not a new phenomenon. 

FIRE’s coverage of incidents where angry mobs shout or shut down disfavored speakers and events go back many years: The cancellations of education professor and Weather Underground co-founder William Ayers’ events at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2008, and again at the University of Wyoming in 2009 and 2010 — as well as the near-cancellation of his event at Montclair State University in 2011 — are just a few among many worth mentioning.

In all these cases, the message is clear: Too many people do not understand that the culture of free speech is just as important as the First Amendment itself — if not more so. Judge Learned Hand put it well when he said, “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.”

The chilling effect caused by a culture that silences dissent, punishes disfavored expression, and believes that threats and mob actions are simply “more speech” is disastrous to the very foundation of our republic. As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff argued in Newsweek after a Minneapolis, Minnesota venue canceled comedian Dave Chappelle’s upcoming performance:

Fostering a culture that respects free speech does not simply require meeting the bare minimum legal standard for tolerance set by the First Amendment. A liberal culture, properly understood, is one in which we accept the idea that it's not up to us — or to those who oppose us — to decide what other people should or should not watch, read, or listen to.

Employees of these venues are free to protest, and even to not show up for work, if their consciences dictate. But they must be prepared for the potential consequences: Employers can fire or otherwise discipline those employees who refuse to do the job they were hired for.

Meanwhile, private businesses also have their own free speech rights and rights of association, and they are free to cancel events if they so choose. But before they go down that road, they should ask themselves, “Why do we exist? What's our purpose?” 

As conflict and debate surrounding the Israel-Hamas war continue to roil, the answer to the tension and turmoil is more speech, not less.

Some venues may indeed have explicitly political aims that may preclude them from hosting certain speakers or artists. But most places schedule programming for diverse audiences and probably don’t have such political considerations. The Rialto in Tucson and the Meow Wolf in Santa Fe certainly don’t — until they are pressured into it. 

And when these venues cave to mob censorship demands, they not only undermine the values of free artistic expression, they also deprive the audience of hearing the message or performance they paid to hear. As Frederick Douglass once said, this “is a double wrong.”

In the case of Matisyahu, this heckler’s veto affected sold-out shows, which large numbers of people were subsequently prevented from attending. This, as FIRE Executive Vice President Nico Perrino put it, “is just like any other form of censorship: It’s the few deciding for the many what they can hear.” 

As conflict and debate surrounding the Israel-Hamas war continue to roil, the answer to the tension and turmoil is more speech, not less. Issues of public concern can only be resolved through dialogue, not by firing, silencing, or deplatforming those with whom we disagree.

What we’re seeing is the loudest, angriest, and most fervent among us dictating the nature and timbre of our discourse, ramping up cancel culture and shutting down even good faith attempts at dialogue across difference.

We will never run out of hot-button issues that deserve our attention — and even our activism. But if we continue down this path of invoking the heckler’s veto, we are compromising our own future right to speak up and speak out when it’s our turn to dissent.

Recent Articles

FIRE’s award-winning Newsdesk covers the free speech news you need to stay informed.