As the election season gets into full gear, we are seeing more and more hecklers at rallies and meetings. How to deal with hecklers poses a tricky issue for democracies that value free speech and the right to demonstrate. If a person is speaking at a public event, to what extent does that person have a right to be allowed to speak undisturbed? To what extent do those who disagree with the speaker have the right to make their protest heard?
The phrase ‘heckler’s veto’ is often used to describe a situation where the disruptions are so great that the speaker can no longer continue but technically, and in First Amendment law, the term is used to describe actions taken by the government (usually the police) to stop the speaker from continuing for fear that the speech may provoke violence or disorder. That kind of preemptive action by the government has been ruled unconstitutional.
The more common use of the term heckler’s veto is to denote the stopping of a speech by the hecklers themselves, either by drowning out the speaker or making things so chaotic and unruly that the speech and the event are terminated. That seems unfair to the speakers and the people who have come to listen to them.
What often happens is that the hecklers shout out their protests and then, if they persist, are usually peacefully escorted out of the venue. This strikes me as a reasonable compromise. The event gets to continue while opposing views are (at least briefly) allowed to be presented.
What would be wrong is for the protestors to be roughed up by event organizers or security guards or arrested and charged and prosecuted, because that seems far too heavy-handed and is aimed at intimidation. People should have the right to express disapproval at public meetings as long as they don’t take it so far as to prevent continuation of the meeting.
This may not be an easy balance to strike though.