The Heckler’s Veto on College Campuses

UC Berkeley Campus

When a government entity cancels or restricts a speaker event - like a Ben Shapiro or Ann Coulter speech at a Young America's Foundation (YAF) event at a college campus – because it is afraid of a disruptive reaction from those opposed to the speech, it surrenders to what is known as a "heckler's veto." To say it another way, a government-run university violates the First Amendment speech rights of a speaker (or the group sponsoring the speaker) when it prevents (i.e., censors) the speech, or substantially inhibits it, because of fear of disruptions from people or groups who erroneously believe they have a First Amendment right to stop the speech.

Recently, YAF and Berkeley College Republicans settled a year-long lawsuit with the University of California, Berkeley for doing exactly that. In Berkeley's case, the university canceled an Ann Coulter lecture organized by the two student groups and imposed a "security fee" for a Ben Shapiro speech that was twice what was imposed for a visit by liberal Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. While the judge hearing the dispute wasn't convinced there was a First Amendment violation by the university, she did allow the lawsuit to proceed under a 14th Amendment "equal protection" claim alleging that security fees imposed on conservative groups were vastly greater than fees imposed on liberal groups at the campus. That led to the recent settlement of the case, which awarded attorney's fees to the student groups of $70,000 and resulted in changes to the university's policy concerning holding major events on campus.

Another recent story of the heckler's veto making the news comes from Gonzaga University, which blocked a proposed YAF and College Republicans event featuring Ben Shapiro. Gonzaga, a Catholic university, decided that since Shapiro's events sometimes draw protests, violence and hateful speech and behavior, the event could not go forward. Note that Gonzaga was not concerned about Shapiro's fans causing the problem; it stopped the event because it feared what opponents of Shapiro's message might do.

Since Gonzaga is a private university, its speech policies and censorship are not prohibited by the First Amendment, which only applies to government actions that infringe free speech. Nevertheless, it is disappointing to watch any university cancel speech because opponents might shout down the speaker or commit acts of violence. Giving in to the heckler's veto will only result in encouraging more of the same.

The Berkeley and Gonzaga experiences are simply two of the most recent examples of the continuing degradation of free speech, exacerbated by the willing complicity of some of the nation's universities.

Hopefully, our nation's educational institutions will follow the University of Chicago's example which welcomes a diversity of messages and viewpoints. Schools that appreciate their role in the free exchange of ideas cannot help but teach their students – our future leaders - that, for speech you disagree with, "the remedy," in the words of former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, "is more speech, not enforced silence."

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