the Irish for rights

Hecklers must not have a veto

I’m very disappointed with the Literary and Debating Society of NUI Galway. Having wrapped themselves in the mantle of freedom of expression over their invitation to David Irving, they let the mantle slip last night. Having invited former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern to a public interview, the event had to be abandoned because of protests by students opposing the reintroduction of college fees (see Belfast Telegraph | GalwayNews.ie | Indymedia | Irish Times | Ninth Level Ireland | RTÉ here and here | YouTube (above left)). The Auditor of the Lit & Deb, Dan Colley, is reported to have said that he was “disappointed” at the turn of events, and concluded

This was a failure of freedom of speech.

No, Dan, this was a failure on the part of the Lit & Deb to protect the process of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is not self-executing. Those who claim to support it have a duty to do so actively. It’s not enough to say free speech is important; it is necessary to be active in its defence and support. If a society such as the Lit & Deb invites controversial speakers, making a grab for the headlines, then that society must ensure that the controversial speakers actually have the opportunity to speak. Otherwise, the hecklers in a hostile audience will have a veto on the speakers. And the heckler’s veto is antithetical to freedom of speech. Hence, the US Supreme Court has rejected it as inconsistent with the freedom of expression guarantees in the First Amendment (see Feiner v New York 340 US 315 (1951); Hill v Colorado 530 US 703 (2000)).

The Lit & Deb should therefore have protected the process of freedom of speech last night by ensuring that Bertie Ahern’s interview went ahead. And they should take active steps to ensure that, having invited David Irving, he actually gets to speak. Anything else would be a failure of freedom of speech, and it would lie at the feet not of the hecklers but of the Lit & Deb.

Update (4 February 2009): from today’s Irish Times: College to investigate Ahern protest; Students to hold street protest over return of fees and cuts to assistance; Third-level capital programmes targeted in €56m cutback plan.

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7 Responses to “Hecklers must not have a veto”

  1. […] Eoin suggests freedom of speech doesn’t mean let the hecklers win. […]

  2. interesting post. I’m not too keen on the attitude of the FEE protesters myself, but the thought did occur to me that of all the people to restrict the free speech of, a sitting TD (and particularly in this case, recent national leader) is probably the least consequential.

    as in, they are ubiquitous in the media, have excellent PR connections, as well having extended free speech privileges (with regards to libel) in the Dail itself. for someone who we hear the views of so often, can we not oppose their wish to speak in a particular setting?

    of course, on the other hand, universities are meant to be about debate and confrontation of opposing viewpoints above and beyond that in the general public sphere.

    (by way of disclosure, I’m a UCD student who was on the march today)

  3. […] arrival at NUI Galway led to the cancellation of a public interview with him – and I thoroughly disapproved of this at the time. Protestors must be allowed to make their point, but, by the same toke, they must not […]

  4. […] their point, but, by the same token, they must not have a veto on the speech of others. (I have made such points before in respect of similar controversies in other institutions, and I am saddened […]

  5. […] that nobody will confuse the movie in question with The Satanic Verses. Otherwise, we give the heckler the veto over what we can say and what we can hear. Bring the perpetrators of violence to justice, […]

  6. […] in a hostile audience will have a veto on the speakers. As I have argued on this blog in the past, the heckler’s veto is antithetical to freedom of speech. In 2011, Trinity College Dublin, where I work, withdrew an invitation to a controversial speaker […]

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Me in a hatHi there! Thanks for dropping by. I’m Eoin O’Dell, and this is my blog: Cearta.ie – the Irish for rights.

“Cearta” really is the Irish word for rights, so the title provides a good sense of the scope of this blog.

In general, I write here about private law, free speech, and cyber law; and, in particular, I write about Irish law and education policy.

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