Some of the most high-profile instances of heckler's veto in recent years have involved controversial speakers on college campuses. What is heckler's veto, and why does it fall outside the sphere of constitutionally protected speech? First Amendment scholar Nadine Strossen explains the historical and constitutional origins of the doctrine and why exercising heckler's veto (even against offensive or hateful speech) would contravene free speech principles.
Nadine Strossen is a professor at New York Law School and a former longtime president of the ACLU.
There has been so much publicity recently about incidents on college campuses where speakers are shouted down, shut down, violently disrupted. Do they have a right to be protected from these kinds of shout downs, which are called the heckler's veto? My name is Nadine Strossen. I am a professor of constitutional law at New York Law School and the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Do you have a right to engage in a heckler's veto and to stop somebody whose ideas you hate from expressing those ideas? The answer to that question is no. The heckler's veto violates the speaker's First Amendment free speech rights. The so-called heckler's veto also violates the First Amendment rights of audience members who want to hear that unpopular message. And it's very interesting to note that the Supreme Court came up with the concept of an illegal heckler's veto in the context of the 1960s civil rights movement. Today, we usually see the heckler's veto wielded in an attempt to suppress racist or other hate-mongering speech. It's really important to know that it is a neutral concept that often, and from its beginning, has been used to protect the speech of civil rights activists. Back in the 1960s, when in many parts of the country, Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists had messages that were deeply unpopular and controversial, government officials tried to stop them from speaking and from demonstrating, arguing that there would be violent disruption by people who disagreed with their messages. And in fact, there was violent disruption—rocks were thrown, bottles were thrown, people were injured, and the United States Supreme Court said this constitutes an illegal heckler's veto. Government must use all of its available resources to prevent the violence.
So, in a nutshell, do those who disagree with, object to, do they have a right to exercise a so-called "heckler's veto?" No, a heckler's veto violates very important First Amendment rights. My name is Nadine Strossen. Thank you for listening to TalksOnLaw.