The Heckler's Veto

By Wendy Kaminer

Karl Rove enjoys opportunities to speak and be heard that most of us will never approximate, but we should still condemn the behavior of protesters who (TPM reported) disrupted his recent book signing in Beverly Hills.  The protesters were not exercising their First Amendment rights so much as they were effectively restricting the rights of others -- not just Rove but audience members who were interested in hearing from him.  The heckler's veto limits speech, obviously, but people resort to it with the sense of righteousness shared by so many censors, for whom free speech merely means speech they like or, at least, don't strongly dislike.  The hecklers arrested for disrupting a speech by the Israeli ambassador at the University of California, Irvine last month are now citing their constitutional rights to dissent as a defense to prosecution.  

The students, their families, and communities have "expressed concerns that the university's actions amount to retribution against and intimidation of students for expressing dissenting political views," a letter to the Orange County District Attorney's office from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) asserts.  The prosecution of these students "will be viewed by the American Muslim community and those who value free speech as an attempt to repress legitimate student protest and will undermine this important First Amendment right."  According to a letter sent to the UC Irvine Chancellor by CAIR and the National Lawyers Guild, the Irvine hecklers belong in the company of civil rights activists who risked their lives in mid-20th century America or apartheid era South Africa: "...the right to freely express one's opinions is a most sacred freedom protected by our Constitution, finding college campuses to be its most cultivating venue.  Civil protest against government abuses is a time-honored tradition that has led to the end of apartheid and the birth of civil rights."
 
In other words, the students were engaged in civil disobedience, according to their defenders.  Arguably, I suppose.  But, unlike civil rights protesters, the UC Irvine hecklers were not protesting grossly unjust laws that threatened their lives and trampled their most basic rights; they were disrupting a speech delivered by the invited representative of a foreign government that they opposed.  Besides, as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an unyielding defender of free speech, has observed, civil disobedience (the most generous description of the Irvine protests) entails a willingness to break the law and accept the consequences without trying to weasel your way out of them.

Of course, the heckler's wrongs don't make Israel or Karl Rove right, or reasonable.  "This goes to show the totalitarianism of the Left," Rove declared after a Code Pink leader tried unsuccessfully to subject him to a citizen's arrest.  If the foolish theatrics of a few relatively powerless left-wing protesters constitute totalitarianism, then what was Stalinism?  Maybe Rove was genuinely unhinged by the protests, but I suspect his remark reflected his usual cynicism.  Condemnation of "the Left" or center left as totalitarian is a Republican talking point; health care reform also constituted "totalitarianism," which is becoming just another word for policies that right wingers don't like, or even code for "Democrat."  Free speech and the marketplace of ideas are threatened not just by censorship but by the political perversions of language that Orwell so famously described.  Rove yells back "totalitarian" at anti-war protesters yelling "war criminal" at him.  When he asserts that "the Left" doesn't "believe in dialogue," he knows from whence they scream.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/03/the-hecklers-veto/38252/