Free Speech, But at a Price

A student’s analysis on how the ‘heckler’s veto’ is killing free speech on college campuses across the nation.

A heckler is defined as someone who “interrupts a performer or public speaker with derisive or aggressive comments or abuse,” according to English Oxford Living Dictionaries.

Their main aim is to silence or “veto” the speaker so the audience is unable to hear. If hecklers succeed, events cannot proceed.

Unfortunately, on college campuses today, hecklers have become a liability to whom university administrators are all too willing to cater.

Administrators have cancelled events when hecklers shout down speakers or even after hecklers simply threaten to disrupt an event.

This phenomenon is one aspect of today’s trend on college campuses to curtail free speech.

Too many administrators would rather cancel a speaker than deal with hostility or security concerns.

The “heckler’s veto” can play out in several ways. Consider this scenario: a controversial speaker is set to come to campus, but as the event approaches, concerns about security arise and result in exorbitant security fees to protect the campus community.

The student group who invited the speaker cannot afford to pay these costs, so the administration cancels the event.

This nearly happened last month. Conservative commentator, Ben Shapiro, was charged security fees that amounted to $600,000 after he was invited by a student group to speak at the University of California, Berkeley.

The “heckler’s veto” has also shut down speech in progress.

Students affiliated with the Black Lives Matter group at our neighbor, The College of William and Mary, shut down an American Civil Liberties Union speaker last month. Claire Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU in Virginia and a William and Mary alumni, ironically was set to discuss free speech and peaceful student demonstrations.

As protesters started to rush into the auditorium Gastañaga said, “Good, I like this, I’m going to talk to you about knowing your rights, and protests and demonstrations… then I’m going to respond to questions from the moderators, and then questions from the audience.”

After she uttered those words, protesters lined up on front of the stage with posters and started chanting phrases like “ACLU, you protect Hitler, too” (in reference to the ACLU providing legal defense to the First Amendment rights of the neo-Nazi group following events in Charlottesville) and “the revolution will not uphold the Constitution.”

Legally speaking, the Supreme Court and lower courts have affirmed that the First Amendment does protect the right to speech that is unpopular or controversial.

In Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement, the Supreme Court found that “speech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob.”

The anticipation of violence or other disruptions cannot become the standard for denying someone the right to speak.

The university fails in its core mission if it succumbs to those who equate speech they do not like with violence, and administrators rob students of the opportunity to engage with ideas that may be troubling or contentious.

Administrators would be wise to recognize the tremendous threat to free speech that the heckler’s veto poses, and resist the loss of academic freedom that catering to hecklers invites.