UPDATE (Oct. 24, 2022): On Oct. 3, 2022, the University of California, Hastings College of the Law announced to the campus community that it adopted the Event Policy draft on Oct. 1, incorporating its substantive provisions with minor edits. FIRE is glad to see this clear, speech-protective policy go into force, and we commend UC Hastings on taking this important step to protect students’ expressive rights by preventing the heckler’s veto on campus.
March 2, 2022 was a dark day for free speech at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. At a campus event, constitutional scholar Ilya Shapiro couldn’t even get through his opening remarks because of cacophonous chanting and yelling by protestors, rendering the audience completely unable to hear him. In light of the disruption, UC Hastings proposed a revised Event Policy to ensure this illiberal heckler’s veto never happens again.
The heckler’s veto — substantially disrupting an event via violence or other means to prevent a speaker from speaking — is the subject of intense debate as to whether it is protected expression or punishable misconduct. After protesters derailed Shapiro’s speech, UC Hastings made clear the “suppression of unpopular views deprives students of necessary practical, academic, and professional development opportunities . . . The act of silencing a speaker is fundamentally contrary to the values of this school as an institution of higher learning; it is contrary to the pedagogical mission of training students for a profession in which they will prevail through the power of analysis and argument.”
The policy provides a roadmap for facilitating the expression of controversial speakers on campus.
Universities facing free speech controversies can learn a thing or two from UC Hastings’ strong commitment to expressive rights. The answer to speech you don’t like is more speech, not censorship or violence. Too often, protestors violate students’ free speech rights by shouting down speakers, shutting down their events, or preventing the audience from hearing what speakers have to say.
In failing to address hecklers’ vetoes, universities only engender more violence and less speech. At a law school especially, students must learn that persuasion comes from improving your argument, not by yelling over your adversaries. FIRE is glad to see UC Hastings forestall demands for censorship and repression by recommitting to free speech.
Difference between peaceful protest and heckler's veto
UC Hastings, a public law school fully bound by the First Amendment, pledged to revise its policies to better protect student free speech rights. Its draft Event Policy accomplishes this goal beautifully, serving as a model for all universities committed to free speech to emulate.
Let’s dive in: The policy acknowledges that understanding free speech starts with knowing the difference between peaceful protest and impermissible restriction of others’ expressive rights. It helpfully distinguishes between “carrying signs, distributing flyers, holding events that explore protesters’ views, and using social media to express counterviews,” and “preventing a person from speaking or being heard via such means as heckling, making noise, standing in the area of a room reserved for the speaker.”
The clear dividing line is whether the protest prevents the speaker from talking or the audience from listening. This way, students seeking to protest an event can simply look at the policy to determine whether their actions would constitute protected expression or cross the line into censorship.
Additionally, the policy calls for students, administrators, and campus security to work together to preserve both public order and expressive freedom when controversial speakers come to campus. Administrators cannot cancel student events “based on the content of the event or the views of the speaker(s).”
With this comprehensive, lucid guide to addressing disruptive protests, UC Hastings has taken an admirable step toward stopping hecklers’ vetoes once and for all.
Student event organizers are encouraged to alert campus security if substantial disruption is threatened, allowing students and administrators time to create a plan for any interference with the event. The policy also includes a sample announcement reiterating the important free speech principles at play that organizers can read at the event’s onset to deter disruptions. With detailed protocols before and during the event designed to protect speakers’ right to address their sometimes-hostile audiences, the policy provides a roadmap for facilitating the expression of controversial speakers on campus.
With this comprehensive, lucid guide to addressing disruptive protests, UC Hastings has taken an admirable step toward stopping hecklers’ vetoes once and for all. FIRE urges the university to show higher education how it’s done by adopting the policy in full.
If your institution needs assistance drafting a similar policy, or reviewing its policies to ensure compliance with the First Amendment, contact FIRE today.
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).