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The Heckler’s Veto and the Right to Free Association

It's not just a matter of weighing up one group’s free speech against another group’s counter-speech. It’s also about one group’s freedom of association being impeded.

· 7 min read
The Heckler’s Veto and the Right to Free Association

Note: This is an extended version of my contribution to the panel “Free Speech on Campus: Should Hecklers Be Banned?” at the Battle of Ideas Festival, held in London in October 2023.

The heckler’s veto is, roughly, a veto over another person’s speech, exercised by opponents of the speaker and/or their speech. It can involve interrupting, shouting over, distracting from, or drowning out what the speaker is saying. It can also refer to the attempt to sabotage an entire event or prevent it from taking place to begin with, in order to prevent certain speakers from participating or certain views from being aired. Thus the heckler’s veto often has the effect of preventing audiences from hearing what they wanted to hear.

One recent example of this latter phenomenon occurred when Tokyo College at the University of Tokyo cancelled the event “Feminist Activism in Japan,” scheduled for 11 December. The college has provided only the vaguest justification for this, claiming that the event cannot take place “Due to various circumstances,” but one of the speakers, Caroline Norma, has reason to suspect the explanation was her “transphobic,” i.e., radical feminist views.

Iranian-born human rights activist Maryam Namazie was likewise subject to the heckler’s veto in 2015, when her talk organized by the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (ASH) at Goldsmith’s University was disrupted by protesters from the university’s Islamic Society, who shouted over her, turned off her projector, and repeatedly banged the door, among other things. They claimed that their actions were justified because Namazie is “Islamophobic” and because they had already made a “polite request” to ASH to rescind her invitation.

The standard framing for thinking about the heckler’s veto is in terms of free speech: the speech of an invited campus speaker, for example, versus the speech of those who oppose her. This framing raises several questions for those who care about free speech. Whose speech is more important? Is it coherent to protect the speech of one group when it aims to shut down the speech of another group? And is it coherent to sanction the speech of one side just because it criticizes, opposes, or otherwise disagrees with the other side? Many people insist that the correct response to hate speech is counter-speech, not suppression of speech. Isn’t the heckler’s veto just a form of counter-speech—at least when it is limited to heckling and disruption at an event, rather than shutting down or preventing an event?

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