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April 23, 2006 [feather]
Brown English professor endorses heckler's veto

On April 8. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton paid a visit to Brown University, where she delivered a talk on women as leaders. About seven minutes in, Clinton's speech was disrupted by protesters: A man stood and began yelling "Is it leadership to support the war?" while several others began parroting anti-war slogans and displaying a banner that read, "Clinton War Senator." Clinton kept talking, and security escorted the man and several other protesters out.

All in all, the hoopla lasted about five minutes, according to The Brown Daily Herald; campus officials approached the man, explained that he did not have the right to disrupt the talk, and asked him to comply with university policy by being quiet. When he refused, they removed him from the auditorium. Michael Chapman, vice president for public affairs and university relations, issued a clear and reasonable statement to the Herald: Protests are "a necessary and acceptable means of expression at Brown," he said; "Protests become unacceptable, however, when it obstructs the basic exchange of ideas, such as halting a lecture or debate or any public forum or trying to seize control of a forum, such as Senator Clinton's, for one's own purpose." Chapman's wording comes from Brown's Protest and Demonstration Guidelines.

To its credit, the Herald ran an embarrassed editorial deploring the rudeness and disrespect of the protestors, noting that their misguided and ill-conceived behavior only served to diminish their own cause:

The protests that took place during the lecture, while presumably an attempt to advance dialogue on the war in Iraq and Clinton's senate votes relating to the conflict, succeeded only in threatening to deprive both Brown and Providence from politically relevant speakers in the future. Moreover, those attempting to disrupt Clinton's talk cheapened the efforts of the coalition of activists who protested Clinton's policies prior to her appearance. Members of Rhode Island's chapter of Military Families Speak Out and others articulated their opposition to Clinton without attempting to take the stage away from the senator or hinder community members' ability to hear her views firsthand.

Unfortunately, it is all too easy to conflate the two separate demonstrations. Jacque Amoureux GS said she fears local television stations may have even committed this error in their coverage of the event. Even if that is not the case, audience members and others inevitably viewed the pre-speech demonstrations differently after four protesters crossed the line and imposed on Clinton's talk.

It was unrealistic for those behind the disruption to believe their efforts would enact any sort of positive change. A seasoned politician, Clinton certainly has seen such outbursts before and knows not to engage when they arise. Had they instead paid attention to the senator's speech, even if it did not directly address their specific concerns, those behind the disruption could have possibly gained a new perspective that would have enriched their arguments against her policies. But they refused to wait for an appropriate time and place to voice their opposition.

As a result, their arguments are no stronger, and their position as anti-war activists is severely diminished. In five minutes, they managed to compromise positions they have likely been fine-tuning for months. We only hope they didn't also manage to deprive the Brown community of future appearances from other public figures - or respectful anti-war protesters of their voices.

To his discredit, Brown English professor William Keach responded with a letter to the editor of the Herald deploring its failure to understand the importance of the heckler's veto to suppressing speech that offends:

The only thing more predictable than The Herald's denunciation of antiwar protesters at Hillary Clinton's speech on April 8 was your editorial's ("A step backward," April 10) silence regarding the actual political substance of what the protesters were doing and saying.

Are there any circumstances in which you would support the disruption of a public appearance by a wealthy, powerful politician who acquiesced to a genocidal war based on lies and imperialist arrogance? Do you have anything at all to say about the content of the heckler's question: "Is it leadership to support the war?" Your claim that the antiwar cause was "severely diminished" simply because a group of activists were willing to interrupt the polite decorum of a campus event and speak truth to power isn't credible to me.

To those who protested last Saturday night, I say "congratulations and solidarity!"

In other words, as far as Keach is concerned, it's fine to shut down a speaker through heckling, just as long as the speaker's politics are wrong and the heckler's are right.

Brown's students--hecklers excepted--seem to understand the difference between legitimate protest and protest that proceeds by trying to silence another's speech. So do Brown's administrators. But Keach, who has been a university professor for more than twenty years, seems to be confused on this point.

Keach's shameful disregard for a basic issue of expressive freedom should give the Brown administration pause. Shouldn't the faculty at universities that claim to respect free expression--as Brown does--know what free expression is, and isn't? And isn't it the responsibility of the university to ensure that professors who display their ignorance as proudly as Keach does--and who presume on that ignorance to encourage students to become self-appointed censors--are made aware of their mistakes? Keach has been at Brown since 1986. Surely it's time he learned the basics of free speech.

Worth noting: FIRE has given Brown a "red-light" rating for being a campus where free speech is not really free after all. See in particular Brown's overbroad sexual harassment policy, which forbids "suggestive jokes of a sexual nature," "obscene gestures or sounds," and "sexual pictures or displays." Looks like Brown students should think twice before staging the Vagina Monologues again--Ensler's play is filled with just the sorts of things that Brown is defining as sexual harassment.

Thanks to Mike McKeown for the tip.

posted on April 23, 2006 10:04 PM


Keach looks like just one more leftover hippie. A representative of The Parasitic Generation.

Posted by: Not a boomer at April 23, 2006 11:59 PM

Is there something about academia that makes careers in this field particularly attractive to those who are not comfortable with the idea of free speech?

Posted by: David Foster at April 24, 2006 11:37 PM

No. He's just an extremist. Extremist of all flavors don't like free speech. Whether they are the war protestors in this example, or the "religious right" who fight anything that they think might encourage promiscuity (like the hpv vaccine).

Most Americans don't like free speech--we give freedom lip service. It's easy when all freedom requires is a sticker or flag on the car. When freedom requires being able to accept that others have different views, most people become tyrants.

Posted by: Jason at April 25, 2006 9:20 AM

Jason..when you say "Most Americans don't like free speech," are you referring specifically to Americans, or do you really mean "Most human beings don't like free speech?"

People often say "Americans do X" or "Americans are X" without really analyzing the extent to which the assertion is specific to Americans vs something generically human.

Posted by: David Foster at April 25, 2006 9:51 AM

David--Good point. I would say given the current situation Americans certainly have this problem, but I'm not sure about human beings as a whole. I meant Americans; consider the current polarized nature of most debates in our society.

I guess even if it's a human nature thing (the global examples that come to mind are of extremist groups--not the best by which to judge), then it still strikes me as ironic that people in "the land of the free" are so unwilling to face opposing, or even different, views. We like to pass laws to ban, silence, or otherwise interfere with those we don't agree.

Posted by: Jason at April 25, 2006 1:02 PM

Does it matter that one of the first events marking Hilary's rise to notoreity were some disrespectful comments she made to a black US Senator sharing a podium with her?

When and how do the citizens of the US get to confront politicians such as Hilary for the way they've led the country over the last six years? Isn't it an exaggeration to say that the heckler's behavior silenced Hilary? Sure, her speech was disrupted by it... the decorum was broken. She had her say, though.

Posted by: Yusef at April 26, 2006 12:33 AM

"Are there any circumstances in which you would support the disruption of a public appearance by a wealthy, powerful politician who acquiesced to a genocidal war based on lies and imperialist arrogance?"

Probably not. Why should we support such a disruption and why do you ask? Is there a war going on that matches that description? If there is I'd like to hear why the politician supports it, whether or not she's wealthy and powerful.

"Do you have anything at all to say about the content of the heckler's question: "Is it leadership to support the war?""

There was content to that question?

"Your claim that the antiwar cause was "severely diminished" simply because a group of activists were willing to interrupt the polite decorum of a campus event and speak truth to power isn't credible to me"

"Speak[ing] truth to power? " Was that what they were doing? "Isn't credible to [you]"? Why not? What is there about disrupting a meeting that would give the disrupters credibility?

Anyway I think Hillary missed an opportunity. She could have said, "Here's someone who thinks he can disrupt a meeting by asking if it's leadership. Well my firiend, yes it is leadership and here's why . . .",
like Ann Coulter would have done.

Posted by: Allan at April 26, 2006 2:06 AM