Is heckling at speakers during university functions a right?





Every few minutes during a talk last week at the University of California at Irvine, the same thing happened. A student would get up, shout something critical of Israel, be applauded by some in the audience, and be led away by police.

The speaker -- Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States -- was repeatedly forced to stop his talk. He pleaded for the right to continue, and continued. University administrators lectured the students and asked them to let Oren speak. In the end, 11 students were arrested and they may also face charges of violating university rules....

All of this raises the question: Is interrupting a campus speaker ever a legitimate form of free expression?

Most higher education leaders welcome vocal protests outside a speaking venue and quiet protest (leaflets, for example) inside, but draw the line at interrupting speakers....

Many other experts on free speech and protest agree -- and some are disappointed that national organizations are defending the right to shout repeatedly during a campus talk.

"That's definitely not free speech," Jarret S. Lovell, a professor of politics at California State University at Fullerton, said of the interruptions at Irvine and similar tactics elsewhere. Lovell is a scholar of protest and the author of Crimes of Dissent: Civil Disobedience, Criminal Justice, and the Politics of Conscience (New York University Press)....

Yet another perspective holds that some, modest interruption (less than what took place at Irvine) may be seen as an expression of free speech that doesn't limit the right of a speaker to be heard.

Cary Nelson, national president of the American Association of University Professor, said he holds that view, although he said this was not a question on which there was an AAUP policy. And he said that he believes that "most faculty members regard interruption as unacceptable."...

Nelson said that one of the most moving and effective protests he ever attended was as an undergraduate at Antioch College in the early 1960s. George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party, was the speaker. No one shouted at him, although the students considered him hateful.

"The audience was totally silent and then, during the question period, no one would ask him a question and he began cursing at the audience, but no one would speak," Nelson said....

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