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). 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.