In response to discussions about freedom of speech, particularly at university campuses, I started thinking about the question of heckling a speaker, and to what extent this is, or ought to be, protected by advocates of freedom of speech. I assumed that the correct formulation (both legally in the US context and in terms of what is appropriate) is the one attributed to Nat Hentoff
“First Amendment law is clear that everyone has the right to picket a speaker, and to go inside a hall and heckle him or her—but not to drown out the speaker, let alone rush the stage and stop the speech before it starts
It turns out, however, that Hentoff was wrong, as shown by the case of the Irvine 11.
The Irvine 11 were Muslim students protesting at a speech by the Israeli ambassador. At intervals of a few minutes, they stood up and called out comments critical of Israel. Each was then forcibly removed. On Hentoff’s reading, their removal was an unconstitutional violation of First Amendment free speech rights. Clearly, they weren’t shouting down the speaker, and the total time used up by their interruptions wasn’t significant.
But the police didn’t stop at removing the protestors. They were charged with and convicted of “disrupting a public meeting” and (since they’d acted in concert” with conspiracy to disrupt the meeting. Their conviction was upheld on appeal (Hat Tip: regular commenter J-D)
In these circumstances, it’s perhaps not so surprising to find that the American Civil Liberties Union is more solicitous about Donald Trump’s First Amendment rights to encourage violence against hecklers (or even silent protestors) than about the rights of the protestors, which, as the ACLU explains here are trumped(!) by the rights of private property (unless these rights are exercised in a racially discriminatory fashion).
Similarly, of course, the “free speech” debate in Australia is focused almost entirely on the right of powerful men to make racially offensive statements (the removal of “offend” was central to Turnbull’s failed changes to 18C). I’ve always assumed that we had a legal right to heckle speakers, within the kinds of limits suggested by Hentoff, but maybe that’s not so. I’d welcome any comments.