Heckler’s Veto

There is seemingly a script for Free Speech disruptions on college campuses: A political provocateur is invited to campus, and protesters agitate against him or her with the aim of precluding the speaker from delivering a talk. This kind of disruption — called “the heckler’s veto” — is repudiated everywhere by experts on First Amendment jurisprudence, who claim that this combative practice is not the way to settle disputes in our society. But some also argue that protesters are guaranteed the right to heckle or even silence a speaker by the First Amendment. Others still take issue with the idea that virulent racism or other threatening speech can be calmly discussed and analyzed.

Reflection Questions

  1. Courts have generally frowned upon heckling and attempting to silence controversial speakers as a First Amendment violation, but is this sometimes the only adequate way to express contempt for a speaker’s message?
  2. How can universities and other institutions guarantee protesters’ rights without running the risk that the heckler’s veto will be invoked?
  3. Do the “Free Speech bills” under consideration in many state legislatures threaten unreasonable penalties for hecklers on college campuses?



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