Yesterday, FIRE released an extensive report on “disinvitation” trends since 2000, but we aren’t done reporting on this “disinvitation season” just yet. On Saturday, students at Laney College in California heckled University of California System President and former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano as she attempted to address the graduating class. The Associated Students of Laney College, a student government organization, had called for Napolitano to be disinvited, but those opposed to her visit settled for a mix of silent and disruptive protests during the speech.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, some audience members booed, while others turned their backs on Napolitano or “pumped their fists as a gesture of defiance.” The latter two actions are examples of non-disruptive actions students can take to express their disapproval of a speaker without denying their peers the opportunity to hear him or her speak. But to the extent that the audience could not hear what Napolitano was saying, protesters were committing a “heckler’s veto”—a form of censorship that is worthy of criticism despite the fact that it is exercised by private actors not legally bound by the First Amendment.
So where’s the line between an appropriate counter-protest and a heckler’s veto? That depends on the situation, but a useful way to look at it is whether the protesters intend to express their own viewpoints in a way that allows those who want to hear the speaker to do so, or whether they intend to prevent the speaker’s viewpoint from being heard at all. For example, students who shouted down New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly at Brown University last October, refusing to allow him to speak past 60 seconds, certainly committed a heckler’s veto. In contrast, members of the student group Students for Justice in Palestine spoke just briefly before a walkout-style demonstration at Northeastern University in April 2013, interrupting for just a matter of seconds before allowing the planned presentation by Israeli soldiers to continue. In a free society, there must be some breathing room for heckling, but that needs to end before the speaker is prevented from continuing for a meaningful amount of time.
The shouting and the end result at Laney College appears to fall somewhere between these two points. In light of some students’ efforts to convince the administration to rescind its invitation to Napolitano, though, it is clear that many were motivated not just by a desire to have their voices heard but by a desire to have Napolitano’s voice silenced. This attitude greatly hinders the unfettered debate and open discourse that is meant to thrive on university campuses.
The Chronicle reported that although Napolitano was able to finish her speech (even earning a standing ovation from segments of the audience who presumably were able to hear it), at least some audience members did have trouble hearing her. Some commenters celebrated this outcome, while others lamented it:
“No one could hear her as she was speaking, the whole time,” said Yvette Felarca, one of the organizers of the protest. “It was a very proud day for Oakland – we made it clear that she was not welcome at Laney College. It was an insult, it never should have happened.”
A spokesman for Napolitano, Steve Montiel, said the hostile response to her address was “particularly disappointing” in light of the fact that Napolitano began her remarks by referencing the shooting deaths of six people near the UC Santa Barbara campus on Friday night.
Associated Students Vice President Edward Chavez explained, “Our statement did not have anything to do with any of her remarks, it was planned beforehand.” Indeed, it seems that most of the opposition to certain commencement speakers is not based on what the speakers plan to say but on what they have said or done in the past.
It is important to remember that FIRE’s concerns regarding free expression on campus are not just legal, but also moral and practical. The First Amendment does not prohibit students from voicing their objections to speakers—in fact, it protects their right to do so. But when students engage in an unambiguous attempt to censor others, they are precluding what could have been an edifying experience for many of their peers. It would benefit no one if disinvitations continued to escalate until universities became self-contained bubbles where no outsiders were ever invited to speak, lest someone object to their views.