A Philosopher's Blog

Free Speech & Universities II: Heckler’s Veto

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 10, 2017


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 sparked 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 them.

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 Stanley Milgram, 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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