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

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!