Must Hecklers Be Tolerated For The “Health of Free Speech”?

In a post that infuriated the progressive left, Jonathan Chait argued that the illiberal authoritarian left whose latest performance is the disruption of President Biden’s events are not engaged in the legitimate exercise of free speech, but its antithesis.

The twist, of course, is that the mobs shutting down the opposition to Trump are not Trump supporters, or at least not right-wing Trump supporters. Pro-Palestinian activists have set out to disrupt Democratic Party officials from speaking and raising funds to defeat Trump.

A New York Times story recently drew some attention to the political problem this creates for Democrats. Indeed, some of the protesters are trying to defeat Biden (ergo, to elect Trump) to teach the Democrats a lesson, and others are merely trying to force the Democrats to move left before the election.

It wasn’t Trump supporters shutting down Congressman Jamie Raskin (of all people) at the University of Maryland, but pro-Palestinian protesters. The argument from the left is that they’re merely exercising their free speech rights by drowning out invited speakers or letting them know at three in the morning at the home that they disagree with their position.

I’m not referring to tactics like holding protest marches, speeches, social-media posts, organizing uncommitted votes in the Democratic primary, or other exercises of First Amendment rights. I’m specifically referring to a campaign to shut down speakers who oppose (or even, in many cases, simply decline to endorse) the movement’s agenda.

Usually, it means interrupting speeches with screaming insults until the protesters are dragged out of the room, which has become the norm at Biden campaign events. At events with sub-presidential levels of security, protesters often succeed in overwhelming the event and its security and shutting down the speech or event entirely, sometimes employing violence.

Is this just the flip side of free speech, the part where the reaction to speech one dislikes with more speech, albeit at the same time in the same room or in the middle of the night?

The goal of these maneuvers is not to make the case for pro-Palestinian policy, but to abuse and deny basic rights to those who fail to endorse the protesters’ beliefs. And yes, being prevented from holding a planned speech to supporters, stalked on the street, or subjected to sleep denial are all forms of abuse. Almost nobody believes these are all just natural parts of the give and take of public disagreement.

That these tactics are abusive hardly seems particularly controversial, but doesn’t quite answer the question of whether it’s still free speech, even if it’s the sort of free speech that people really hate. After all, as has long been the mantra, speech people like doesn’t need protection. It’s the hated speech that requires us to stand up for it, no matter how much we despise it. And, indeed, it’s despicable.

In reaction to this conundrum, Prof. Jeffrey Sacks tried to split the baby.

My longstanding feeling re. disruptive protests that drown out speakers or target them in their daily lives is that these things are simultaneously harmful to the free speech of their target and generally must be tolerated for the health of free speech overall.

Not a lawyer, Sacks argues his feelings. for which I gave him a bit of an elbow. Is he merely bothsidesing the issue so as to avoid being called ugly by left and everyone else? There are some who contend that a few minutes of disruption in an event that otherwise goes on unmolested is nothing to get upset about. Some argue that it’s been effective. Chait responded with a curious non sequitur.

whether they must be tolerated legally is a separate question from whether these are morally good tactics.

Despite arguments for and against, there is no law distinguishing the exercise of disruptive free speech from any other. Disruptive speech is not an exception to the First Amendment. Many of the surrounding accoutrements can be, such as violating sound ordinances, trespass or vandalism, but the expression itself is just as protected as any other, no matter how much it’s hated and how many norms of liberal behavior it violates.

But then Chait raises whether these are “morally” good tactics, since morality seems to be the favored touchstone of the day as it can almost always be twisted to serve whatever purpose the high priests want. Not being a high priest, I defer to others as to where morality falls on this issue. I suspect both sides claim the moral high ground, as the disruptors belief their cause is so moral as to demand it prevail by any means necessary, while the disruptees believe the right to speak unmolested is the correct moral position.

But what Sachs raised, that the tactics of disruption and harassment must be tolerated for the “health of free speech overall” is the sort of irrational vagary that the unduly passionate will cling to for dear life. Sure, it’s bad. Fine, it’s illiberal. Yes, it violates norms. But you still have to tolerate the lowest, worst, most malignant tactics for the health of free speech overall. Aside from Sachs’ feelings, is there anything remotely resembling reason to support this?

The biggest problem facing political speech in America right now, especially at the highest levels, isn’t that one side censors the other. It’s that speech on both sides are so thoroughly choreographed. We need a bit more chaos, even if that means some people get shouted down.

At the very least, there is no doubt that Sachs was correct to attribute these views to his feelings rather than thought. From the perspective of reason, however, the disregard for norms of letting people speak without disruption has overtaken the regard for the norms of allowing others to speak. It may not be law, and academics like Sachs may feel like more chaos is a good thing, but the path to persuasion is making a better argument than the next guy, not shouting him down and silencing him. It’s not healthy for anyone.

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