the Irish for rights

Another hecklers’ veto; another failure of freedom of expression on campus

Prof Len Doyal, via his web profile.Via 9th Level Ireland, I am alerted to the following story [with added links]:

Euthanasia lecture cancelled

A controversial public lecture on euthanasia has been cancelled minutes after it began when a group of over 20 protestors disrupted it. The guest speaker Prof Len Doyal, an open proponent of both voluntary and non-voluntary euthanasia, had to be escorted from the lecture theatre at Cork University Hospital by security staff. The lecture entitled ‘Why Euthanasia should be legalised‘, formed part of the annual spring series organized by CUH’s Ethics Forum and started at 5pm. As the 350 attendees were being welcomed, a group of over 20 people stood up and began shouting. Witnesses say some began saying the rosary and one man accused Prof Doyal of being a murderer. A decision was taken soon afterwards to cancel the lecture on public safety grounds but it took some time to get the message through to the audience because of the continuing strong vocal opposition by protestors. …

This is terrible news. As I have argued here before, to ensure that hecklers do not have a veto, those who organise such controversial events must ensure that the controversial speakers actually have the opportunity to speak. Unsurprisingly, the lecture has been a source of controversy for quite some time, so the organisers’ failure to make appropriate arrangements is almost as culpable as the hecklers’ veto. Cary Nelson, President of the American Association of University Professors, explains why controversial speakers, even monsters, should be able to speak on campus. He begins with an invitation to George Lincoln Rockwell, to speak at Antioch when Nelson was a student there.

Monsters With Constituencies

… It was a chance to see firsthand a monster with a constituency, albeit a relatively small one. College audiences have special reason to see such people in the flesh, so as to try to understand how they might draw people to their cause. Monsters, as it happens, also have a way of showing their true colors, as Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did at Columbia University. His ludicrous assertion that there are no homosexuals in Iran did more to discredit him as a competent leader than almost anything one might say about him.

The notion of a monster … suggests … that students who want to understand their culture might benefit from exposure to both its angels and its devils, along with those not so readily classifiable. What one learns can be surprising. …

The American Association of University Professors has repeatedly argued that an invitation is not an endorsement. So far as I remember, no one was silly enough to make the counter claim about the Rockwell invitation. Nor was it necessary for Columbia’s president Bollinger to go to such embarrassing lengths to distance himself from Ahmadinejad. No one thought Columbia was promoting him for the Nobel Peace prize.

… The new weapon of choice [to get a speech canceled] is the anonymous threat of violence delivered by a phone call from a public booth. Then the president or his spokesperson can cancel a speech in a voice filled with regret, ceremoniously invoking “security” concerns … It is the ultimate heckler’s veto. Place a call and you are in charge. Better yet, call the threat in to a talk show host and give his hate campaign a newspaper headline.

We either must stand firm against these efforts to undermine the integrity of our educational institutions or agree that academic freedom no longer obtains … the campus as a whole must bear the cost of assuring that invitations are not withdrawn. If a threat requires extra security, let the campus itself — not the students or faculty who issued the invitation — cover the cost. That is the price of retaining academic freedom for a free society.

That last line is worth repeating: ensuring controversial speech on campus is the price of retaining academic freedom for a free society. It is a price we must be prepared to pay.

Updates I’ve corrected a typo in the title; Ferdinand and Fiona both have some very important things to say; whilst, on the other side of the debate, the perspective of the hecklers’ is given here. More press coverage: Irish Examiner | Irish Independent here and here | Irish Times | Sunday Tribune. As Len Doyal himself commented on the Guardian‘s Comment is Free blog:

Ireland must allow free speech on euthanasia

An angry mob in Cork prevented me from delivering a lecture on the ethics of euthanasia, but Ireland must have this debate …

And, as he says in the Irish Times (24 April 2009):

Moral equivalence is of little use to those dying without dignity

… My views on euthanasia are based only on the search for moral coherence and on compassion for those whom I have been accused of wishing to harm. … Whether or not readers agree with the[m] …, I hope that it is now clear that they would have served to promote an interesting debate in Cork. I regret that dogmatism, apparently fuelled by religion, and lack of respect for free speech prevented this. Beware, it could happen again!

7 Responses to “Another hecklers’ veto; another failure of freedom of expression on campus”

  1. David Malone says:

    People also need to learn that neither the rosary nor like hazard lights make you exempt from the usual standard of behaviour expected.

  2. Niall says:

    I’m unhappy to see that the lecture was cancelled, but really, it’s not hard to see why allowing somebody campaigning to give doctors the right to decide to end a patient’s life might prove controversial in a hospital setting. The situation could have been easily resolved had things been organnised better.

  3. michelle says:

    The Euthanasia debate!

    Well I for one am delighted that professor wasn t allowed speak!
    Not because hes in favour of Euthanasia as such, if he wants to
    End his life by lethal injection at some stage,that’s his own business,
    What really got to me is that Prof Doyal promotes involuntary euthanasia
    For the purpose of cost reduction in hospitals!
    Im all for free speech, but to have a group from the health board invite
    this guy onto hospital premises to talk about how to save money by killing
    off the patients- with the doctor making the decision which person is worth treating.!thats frightening!
    Last time I checked Doctors and Nurses are supposed to heal/treat a sick person no matter what illness/disease they have, Prof Doyle was there to promote the killing of sick people without their consent to save money! I see that as a threat to myself,my loved ones . I don t want him anywhere near our hospitals, I will be old someday I hope! Or at some stage in my life I may need hospital care – If his ideas were to be taken on by those in charge of our Health System – id have to have a Garda Escort with me for fear there would be an attempt on my life by the very people who are supposed to be treating me,! Sounds Crazy! Not really when groups in our Health System or thrashing out the idea under the guise of debate and free speech!
    If they are not in favour of Euthanasia and it has no use or benefits to patients ,doctors and nurses – those persons interested in his views and ideas should have had this debate at their own expense and maybe in a conference hall or college
    If one of my family were in hospital seriously ill and I knew that guy was on the premises putting notions and ideas of involuntary euthanasia into the heads of anyone connected to the running of our hospitals – I wouldnt have shouted him down – id have put him head first out the window !
    So a big well done to the God Squad, Youth Defence and to the General Public for shouting him down, not because of their groups religious beliefs or causes ,but for highlighting a serious threat to all of us, something the whole human race has in common friends and family ,in particular those family members or friends who are sick,old or disabled , No one has the right to take anothers life that’s murder, and not ever for money saving measures –to even speak or think that way is vicious and vile.

  4. […] Good post from Eoin on why hecklers veto freedom of expression. […]

  5. […] Eoin O’Dell has perfectly described this kind of thing as the “Hecklers’ Veto”, where if you just shout loud enough for long enough you can prevent the expression of any […]

  6. […] 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 that I […]

  7. […] 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, but […]

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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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