Does Heckling Violate Freedom of Speech?

Laura Kipnis, Sp!ked Magazine,

Release Date
January 22, 2018


Civil Liberties Free Speech

When someone tries to disrupt a public speaker, are they making an assault on freedom of speech, or just utilizing their own freedom of speech? Prof. Angus Johnston and journalist Brendan O’Neill share their thoughts.
Excerpted from Spiked Magazine’s ‘Unsafe Space Tour’ panel discussion at New York Law School.

  1. DEBATE: Should We Limit Free Speech for Nazis? (video): Should We Limit Free Speech for Nazis? Professors Laura Kipnis, Angus Johnston, and author Brendan O’Neill debate.
  2. Why You Should Tolerate Wrong Opinions (video): Professor and political scientist Brandon Turner explains why real tolerance means accepting free speech even for people whose opinions are 100% wrong.
  3. Protesting on Campus – Laura Kipnis on Free Speech (video): Professor Laura Kipnis recounts when students organized a protest against her for writing an offensive paper.

[Angus Johnston] – Protesting against a speaker… when is that an expression of your free speech rights and when it is that a violation of their free speech rights? There is no one sentence answer to that question. At what point does a heck–
[Audience member begins shouting]
[Tom Slater] – Hold up!
[Bret Weinstein] – There is, too.
[Tom Slater] – We’re coming back out to you in 30 seconds–
Wait a second, hold on a second. You just interrupted me. Wait, wait, wait, wait.
[Audience member continues shouting]
[Angus Johnston] – Wait, wait, wait, no, wait, listen to what I’m saying, please! You just interrupted me, did you violate my free speech rights? Did you?
[Audience member continues shouting]
[Angus Johnston] – Wait, but did you just, right. Okay, so, wait, hold on a second. Wait, wait, wait, wait. This is wonderful. I am loving this so much because I am being prevented from finishing my sentence by people who feel like I am expressing in opposition to free speech. This is great. This is exactly what I’m talking about. Wait, hold on a second, give me a sentence, give me one more sentence to say why I think that you have the right to interrupt me. I’m here, I’ve got a microphone, I’ve got a lot of power. I’ve got a lot of power in this room, not as much as the guy with the the clock, but I’ve got a lot of power and so if I have a microphone, I can speak over you. If you are interrupting me, I can push on past you. I can wait ’til you’re done and then I can respond. I can get the last word. There’s a lot of stuff that I can do and so I would say that when y’all start getting real frustrated with me and interrupting me, you are not at all violating my free speech rights, you are expressing your free speech rights, you are exercising your free speech rights. There comes a point probably–maybe you cut the mic, maybe you storm the stage, maybe you pull a fire alarm, right? Maybe there does come a point where my free speech rights have been violated by your disruption, but certainly the disruption that we just experienced was not a violation my free speech, right? And so it’s not just one sentence thing, because it’s complicated. There is a mushy middle–
[Audience member continues shouting]
[Tom Slater] – Hold up, hold up.
[Audience Member] – Excuse me, you like Antifa, I’m just doing what they do.
[Tom Slater] – And I’m gonna do what they do and tell you to be quiet.
[Angus Johnston] – Can I just say one thing and then we’ll move on? This room of civil libertarians is the first time I’ve ever been interrupted as a speaker, so that’s wonderful.
[ Brendan O’Neill] – One of the greatest things ever written about freedom of speech was written in response to the heckling question, it was “A Plea for Free Speech” by Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist who wrote this piece after a meeting of abolitionists in Boston was interrupted by racists and pro-slavery people and shouted down, and he wrote a plea for free speech which is one of the best and most passionate things you will ever read in defense of freedom of speech, so that wasn’t a 1st Amendment issue, the state, Congress, government was not interfering with his and the other people’s rights. that was a matter of informal censorship enforced by a mob. So this question of informal censorship has been around for a long time and if you want to know when heckling becomes a problem, i.e. when someone is prevented from speaking, read Frederick Douglass, read the minority groups who struggled for freedom of speech for decades, who you now demean through saying, “Oh, free speech doesn’t matter,” that’s the shocking thing, heroes of mine had their ears cut off, their tongues pulled out, they were tied to the stocks, they were pelted with eggs, they were jailed for years for expressing their freedom of speech. The idea that you would now turn against the idea of freedom of speech is a grave insult to history and to the people who made our lives as nice as they currently are.