Overriding the Heckler’s Veto
The practice of inviting guest speakers to college and university campuses is a longstanding tradition aiming to foster diversity of thought and enrich the educational experience.
Frequently, the views and beliefs of a speaker will conflict with those held by some members of the campus community––reflecting a healthy campus climate where ideas are debated and orthodoxies are challenged. However, recent controversies such as the shout down of a federal judge at Stanford Law School, a conservative media figure at University at Albany, and constitutional scholar at University of California, Hastings College of Law (now U.C. College of Law, San Francisco), have highlighted the challenges of hosting speakers on campus and overriding the heckler’s veto.
Originally coined by University of Chicago legal scholar Harry Kalven, Jr. in his 1965 book, The Negro and the First Amendment, the “heckler’s veto” occurs when an individual or group disrupts or restricts speech through excessive noise, intimidation, or violence. It is not intermittent shouting, opposition, or even criticism, but rather substantial disruption that prevents a speaker from being heard.
Some defend the heckler’s veto as a form of counter-speech, protected by the First Amendment. However, the disruptor’s goal is to suppress other’s speech––often suggesting the speaker’s ideas are dangerous or harmful––not merely countering it. In fact, according to a 2022 Knight Foundation-Ipsos national survey, 1 in 4 students favor disinviting speakers whose speech is perceived as offensive or biased. Similarly, 13% of students in a 2020 Gallup-Knight Foundation survey regard it as at least sometimes acceptable to use violence to silence a speaker.
The heckler’s veto is antithetical to the fundamental mission of the university: to pursue and transmit knowledge through the exploration of ideas, even those perceived as controversial. How can universities respond to the use of a heckler’s veto in a way that maintains an inclusive campus culture, encourages tolerance of views, and allows for protest without silencing speakers?
Contemporary Examples of the Heckler’s Veto
Episodes span the ideological spectrum and involve shout downs, barring entrances, threats of violence, and other unique methods of silencing speakers.
Prior to the shout down of a federal judge at Stanford Law School, the most well-known instance of the heckler’s veto occurred in 2017 at Middlebury College, where students shouted down Charles Murray, a political scientist and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. After students disrupted the event, administrators improvised a studio to livestream his speech. While Charles Murry delivered his lecture virtually, it denied students the opportunity to hear him in person and participate in the planned Q&A.
State and federal officials from both parties have faced difficulties on campus. In 2017, Xavier Becerra, then-California Attorney General, was shouted down at Whitter College by pro-Trump community members. In 2019, then-Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan was shouted down when he attempted to deliver a keynote address at Georgetown University.
Students have also deployed the heckler’s veto by impeding event access. In 2017, students at Claremont McKenna College forced administrators to livestream a lecture by essayist and Manhattan Institute Fellow Heather Mac Donald after they blocked the building entrance. Raucous protests can also intimidate students from attending an event, even without impeding access. For example, a University of North Carolina survey quoted a liberal student deterred from hearing a conservative guest speaker after seeing “so many protests outside of it that like we’re making us feel really bad about going. It kind of just backed [sic] away and like not go.”
Consequences of the Heckler’s Veto: Academics, Citizenship, Trust in Higher Education
The heckler’s veto insists that the loudest voice should prevail. It undermines academic debate and the freedom to hear and question speakers. The increasing reliance on the heckler’s veto may signal a shift in norms where, instead of reasoned arguments and civil dialogue––tools of persuasion––students resort to censorship.
The heckler’s veto is also contrary to our democratic values to uphold the rights of speakers whose ideas do not align with the status quo; just as the civil rights activists of the 1950s and 1960s frequently braved jeers, intimidation, and physical ejections while they strove to secure equal rights for all. Then-President Barack Obama warned against this tactic during his 2016 commencement address at Howard University, suggesting that the heckler’s veto is contrary to norms of democratic citizenship. Noting that, “our democracy gives us a process designed for us to settle our disputes with argument and ideas and votes instead of violence and simple majority rule,” Obama continued:
So don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them. There’s been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view or disrupt a politician’s rally. Don’t do that––no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths. Because as my grandmother used to tell me, every time a fool speaks, they are just advertising their own ignorance. Let them talk. Let them talk. If you don’t, you just make them a victim, and then they can avoid accountability.
Public trust in higher education is falling, and pollsters point to concerns about chilled speech as a factor. From negative national headlines to chaotic scenes captured on social media, it’s easy to see why the broader public believes these are endemic scenes on today’s college campuses. Countering the heckler’s veto and building public confidence in students’ willingness to tolerate contentious ideas without resorting to shout downs may go some way to restoring public trust.
Preventing the heckler’s veto on college and university campuses is a significant challenge worthy of an administration’s attention. Schools caught flat-footed when a controversy arises have experienced poor response outcomes. By developing clear policies and building a scholarly culture on campus, schools can show students that they need not resort to extreme tactics.
When administrations receive notice of potential controversy regarding outside speakers, one response is to disinvite the speaker. In October 2019, Southern Georgia University canceled an event featuring novelist Jennine Capó Crucet after students burned her book based on its themes of race and white privilege; in October 2022, Pennsylvania State University, after initially saying the event would proceed, canceled an event co-hosted by Gavin McInnes, co-founder of the Proud Boys, due to a “threat of escalating violence” from student protestors; in 2017, Theological College revoked an invitation to Rev. James Martin, after social media attacks on his calls for dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the LGBT community.
While the impulse to disinvite a speaker is understandable, it empowers those willing to use blackmail threats of disruption or violence. Administrators have a clear responsibility to ensure campus safety, and having major events and disruption policies can minimize the chances of costly disruption. Indeed, the Catholic University of America, which houses the Theological College, criticized the disinvitation, with its president saying, “Universities and their related entities should be places for the free, civil exchange of ideas.”
Another preemptive response to speaking events that may result in violence or disruption is charging high security fees. Expensive security fees are a significant financial strain on many universities’ budgets. Thus, administrations face the competing interests of protecting free speech and ensuring campus safety while remaining financially secure. In 2016, a student group at the University of Maryland canceled its event with Milo Yiannopoulos after being unable to raise $2,000 in security fees required by the university.
However, additional or excessive security fees violate student’s First Amendment protections at public universities. An example of this is when Montclair State University had to backtrack on its plan to require Students for a Democratic Society to pay for extra security to host former professor and Weather Underground member Bill Ayers.
To balance these conflicting obligations, administrators should enforce security fees that are objective and content-neutral while implementing strategies that inform students on how to engage constructively without violence.
To deter use of the heckler’s veto, colleges and universities can adopt policies against event disruptions and prescribing consequences for violators. Examples include the University of California, Irvine’s Major Events Policy and the University of Wisconsin Madison’s Protest Guidelines. These policies include information on disciplinary measures, examples of non-disruptive and disruptive behavior, and viewpoint-neutral guidelines.
Policies alone are not sufficient; administrators must support and enforce them. Following the 2017 disruption of Heather Mac Donald’s lecture at Claremont Mckenna College, the administration suspended five students involved in blocking the entrance. When Stanford Law School students shouted down a federal judge, the school’s dean wrote that it would be “problematic” to discipline students who had used the heckler’s veto because administrators present had given “conflicting signals about whether what was happening was acceptable or not (and indeed at one point to seemingly endorse the disruptions that had occurred up to that point by saying ‘I look out and say I’m glad this is going on here’).”
Education & Facilitating Dialogue
Unfortunately, sometimes even a layered response cannot prevent use of the heckler’s veto: at Cornell University in 2021, political commentator and Cornell alumna Ann Coulter was unable to deliver remarks and take Q&A, despite the university’s refusal to disinvite the speaker, presence of campus security officers, and policies against the heckler’s veto.
The most lasting solution to the threat of the heckler’s veto is changing the campus culture so that students tolerate—even embrace—hearing the widest range of views, even those they find objectionable. Educational programs can be employed to teach about counter-speech and ways to promote a climate of open discourse. These programs can foster a sense of agency when students encounter speech they object to––from simply walking away, engaging with the speaker in a question and answer session, or hosting a counter event.
Some colleges have introduced first-year orientation programming on free expression, setting the expectation that students will encounter ideas with which they vehemently disagree during their college years. At Purdue University, students learn techniques during their first-year student orientation, introducing multiple scenarios of students confronting controversial viewpoints. New York University’s First Amendment Watch, alongside the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, have developed free expression modules on topics such as “Talking Across Differences” and “Offensive Speech on Campus” as off-the-shelf resources for schools to use in first-year orientation and upper year courses. Institutions such as Metropolitan State University of Denver and Colorado State University have created their own materials and events throughout the academic year on “how to disagree constructively.”
Sometimes schools are forced to respond quickly to a speaker controversy. When the district court instructed Auburn University that it could not refuse to host white nationalist Richard Spencer, school officials took steps to demonstrate its commitment to First Amendment principles while disavowing Spencer’s views as contrary to the academic ethos. In short order, the campus leadership devised and implemented channels to affirm the values of free speech, inclusion, and diversity, and to provide campus leaders, faculty, staff, and students avenues of protest without resorting to the heckler’s veto.
Another approach for when protests seem close: the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Nevada, Reno developed free speech cards to hand out as tangible reminders of positive ways to protest and warnings not to use the heckler’s veto or violence.
The heckler’s veto has consequences for academia and our civil society, damaging the community’s ability to reason, debate, and negotiate over our differences. Deterring this tactic requires a commitment to both policies and an academic culture unafraid to tackle difficult subjects. It involves educating students on the nuances of free speech, providing avenues for opposing views, and creating an environment conducive to productive and meaningful dialogue.
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