With Homeland Security chief’s aborted speech, Georgetown Law submits to heckler’s veto

October 7, 2019

This morning, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan was scheduled to address an audience at Georgetown Law’s 16th Annual Immigration Law and Policy Conference. He planned to give remarks and then take questions from the audience. But he wasn’t the only one with a plan for his speech: Hecklers bent on preventing him from speaking and the audience from hearing his remarks came with one too — to disrupt the event and prevent McAleenan from being heard at all. 

The speaker (and audience) lost. The heckling protesters won. Georgetown authorities did nothing effective to stop it. Thus a heckler’s veto was born.

The event was livestreamed on YouTube and is currently still available to view, with the action starting about 21 minutes in. 

As soon as McAleenan takes the lectern, some audience members stand up with banners, blocking the view of significant numbers of audience members, and begin shouting, “When immigrants are under attack what do we do? Stand up, fight back!” Other members of the audience appear to be standing and shouting as well, though most are not.

After about 30 seconds, a panelist starts to ask the protesters to quiet down and save it for the Q&A period. After quieting for a few seconds, the disruption begins again. The panelist asks more vehemently for the shouters to “Please be seated so that we can hear the speaker and engage in a dialogue,” which leads to vigorous audience applause.

While the banner-holders fail to sit down, they do go quiet, and the panelist invites McAleenan to start his speech. He manages to say “Good morning, everyone,” before the chants begin anew, cutting him off again. A police officer and man in a suit arrive at the side of some of the banner holders, but mostly appear to just watch them. The panelist seemingly talks the protesters down a couple more times, but each time as McAleenan is about to start speaking on the topic, the shouts begin again. A visibly frustrated McAleenan decides to leave, but at that point a another man comes to the lectern and once again tries to convince the hecklers to allow the event to continue. They quiet down again, and this time McAleenan gets a paragraph or two into his speech when the shouts begin again. At this point, McAleenan shrugs and leaves, to scattered applause by audience members. The whole episode takes about 7 minutes.

So what did Georgetown do wrong? Simply put, the problem is in what it didn’t do, which was to remove the disruptive hecklers once it became clear that they were not going to allow the speech to go forward. FIRE has long argued that there has to be some breathing room for brief heckling, boos, and other negative responses to the speaker, as long as the event is able to go forward. That sort of audience reaction is normal and unproblematic. What happened at Georgetown this morning was a planned, coordinated disruption.

Georgetown is a private, Catholic university, so it’s not bound by the First Amendment to ensure speakers can speak and be heard. But it is bound by its own promises. Its Speech and Expression Policy reads, in part:

An individual or group wishing to protest at an event may do so as long as any speaker’s right to free speech and the audience’s right to see and to hear a speaker are not violated. Student organizations and university departments are required to plan for the possibility of protests while organizing their events.

As for the first sentence of that policy, it strongly appears that the hecklers violated it. More interesting, though, is the second sentence: If Georgetown Law was “required to plan for the possibility of protests,” why didn’t it? Or, if it did, why was the plan either unused or ineffective? 

It’s hard to believe that Georgetown did not see the possibility of disruptive protests at this event, but if there was any attempt to remove the hecklers, it is totally invisible on the video. Indeed, the three sets of banner holders that are actively blocking members from the audience from seeing the stage don’t sit down at any point. The only attempt to rein in the heckling appears to come from the panelists and hosts who, when ignored, have no option but to simply give up and move on. Georgetown should have and could have done better, and its failure will only embolden those interested in engaging in vigilante censorship down the road.

Attempts to silence campus speakers rather than engage or even argue with them are no longer novel or surprising. That means colleges and universities have no excuse for failing to ensure that all viewpoints may be heard and expressed. As Frederick Douglass wrote in his famous Plea for Free Speech in Boston

“To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker. It is just as criminal to rob a man of his right to speak and hear as it would be to rob him of his money.” 

The sooner colleges take this lesson to heart, the better off they and their students will be.


Schools:  Georgetown University