Free Speech & Universities: Heckler’s Veto



A look at the ethics of using heckling to silence speakers.

While the debate over free speech is a venerable one, recent
events have served to add a new drama to this matter.
When Middlebury invited Charles Murray to speak, the event was
disrupted by student protestors and both Murray and Professor
Allison Sanger were attacked on campus.
This incident has
considerable reflection on the campus and beyond
. Peter
Singer, a philosopher who is no stranger to controversy, also
found his talk
disrupted by people who disagree with his views
. This
shutting down of a speaker by protestors has become known as
the heckler’s veto.

One of the narratives about these sorts of
disruptions is that the left believes that free speech extends
only to those they agree with
. On the one hand, this does
have some merit: recent disruptions have been aimed at speakers
whose view are generally regarded as being out of step with the
most vocal of the left. On the other hand, there has been
strong opposition against these disruptions from people who
would also be considered on the left. As such, to say that the
left opposes free speech on the part of those they disagree
with is no more (or less) accurate than saying that Republicans
oppose local control when it goes against the interests of oil
companies and the NRA. That said, it is fair to note that the
opposition to speakers seen as being on the right does
unsurprisingly come from the left. While speculating about
whether “the left” is against free speech is interesting, what
is philosophically important is the ethics of the heckler’s
veto in the context of the right of free speech.

The most extreme version of the heckler’s veto is violence,
such as that directed against Murray and Sanger. Richard
Spencer, who is regarded by some as a Nazi, was famously
punched for his views,
igniting a debate about the ethics of punching Nazis
. The
usual version of the heckler’s veto is revealed by the name: to
engage in heckling to prevent the speaker from being heard or
interfering with the speaker until they give up trying to
speak. The hallmark of this sort of heckler is that they are
not trying to engage and refute the speaker, they are
endeavoring to prevent the speaker from being heard.

The easy and obvious approach is to follow a stock position on
free speech: as long as the speaker is not engaged in such
directly harmful speech such as slander or calls for violence,
then the speaker should be free to speak without disruption.
This can be made more sophisticated by taking the classic
utilitarian approach of weighing the harms and benefits of
allowing the speaker to exercise the right to free speech. For
example, if punching Nazis to silence them sends the message
that Nazism will not be tolerated and this reduces the hate
crimes committed in the United States, then such punching would
seem to be morally good.

An alternative to the utilitarian approach is to argue that
there are some things, such as Nazism and sexism, whose
inherent badness entails that people should not be permitted to
speak in favor of them even if doing so created no meaningful
harms. While I do see the appeal in the “there are things we
must not allow to be said” approach, there is the significant
challenge of showing that even without any harm being caused,
such speech is simply wrong. I will not endeavor to do so here,
but I am open to arguments in favor of this view.

One interesting approach to heckling is to point out that it
seems to be a tactic for those who cannot refute the views they
oppose; it is the noisy refuge of the logically or rhetorically
incompetent. If the views being expressed by the offending
speaker are wrong, then they should be refutable by
argumentation. If all someone can do is yell and disrupt, they
should remain silent so that someone with the ability to refute
the speaker can engage in this refutation. For example, those
who disagreed with Murray should have made their points by
arguing against him.

A practical reply to this is that a member of the audience
might not be given the opportunity to engage in a possibly
lengthy refutation of the speaker. As such, they must engage in
the rapid and effective means of heckling to prevent the
speaker from even getting the words out. A reasonable counter
to this is that while a person might not have the chance to
engage at the actual event, they have an opportunity at
refutation via such venues as Twitter, a blog, or YouTube.

Another reply to this is that allowing the speaker to speak on
a campus lends legitimacy and normalizes the speaker’s views,
even if the views are not explicitly endorsed. As such, if a
speaker cannot be prevented from being invited, then they must
be silenced by disruption.

While this does have appeal and schools should consider the
educational merit of speakers, having a person speak on campus
does not entail that the school endorses the views and does not
make them legitimate. To use the obvious analogy, using the
Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf in a
political science class does not endorse or legitimize these
works. Likewise, inviting someone with “alt right” views to a
debate on American political thought does not entail that the
school endorses the “alt right” or make it legitimate. Just as
reading books containing ideas one might not agree with (or
even hate) is part of education, so too is listening to
speakers expressing such ideas. As such, heckling speakers to
silence them would be on par with censoring books to keep
people from reading them or movies to keep people from seeing

This can be countered by making use of one of Plato’s classic
arguments for censorship in the Republic. Plato argued
that exposure to certain types of art would corrupt people and
make them worse. For example, someone who was exposed to
violent works of art could become corrupted into becoming
violent. Plato’s solution was to ban such art.

In the case of speakers, it could be argued that they must be
silenced by heckling because their speeches would corrupt
members of the audience. For example, one might claim that
listening to Murray talk about his work would corrupt audience
members with racism and poor methodology. This argument
assumes, as does Plato’s, that most people lack the ability to
defend themselves from such corrupting power. Since the
hecklers think the speaker is wrong, they presumably think that
most people are either incapable of discerning right from wrong
or are just awaiting the right trigger to cause them to embrace
evil. On this view, the hecklers would be heroes: those strong
enough to resist the siren song of evil and loud enough to
drown it out. For those who agree with Plato, Aristotle or
, this argument should be appealing: most people are
easily swayed towards misdeeds and few are influenced by either
arguments or fine ideals. Those who dislike Trump and attribute
his election in part to defects in voters would also find this
approach appealing. And, of course, no discussion of this sort
would be complete without a mandatory reference to Hitler and
his ability to win over the people.

But, of course, no discussion of this sort would be complete
without noting how heckling is like any other tool—it can be
used by the good and the evil alike. Naturally, the people
using it will think they are on the side of good and their foes
evil. Their foes, of course, are likely to think the opposite.
Since sorting out what is good and bad requires consideration
and discussion, silencing people would interfere with sorting
out this rather important matter. As such, I am opposed to
heckling, even if I disagree strongly with the target. That
said, my more cynical self is tempted by Plato’s argument that
the ears of the many must be protected from corrupting words
and that it is up to the philosophers to decide which words are
corrupting and which are wholesome.


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Tags: charles
, ethics, free speech, middlebury, nazi,
peter singer, university

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