The heckler’s veto

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.


  1. doublereed says

    I don’t see what about that balance is difficult to strike. If people aren’t being violent, then yes you can peacefully escort them out, but you can’t you can’t be violent back at them. That’s just assault.

    Oftentimes, organizations like universities and conventions and such try to “avoid controversy” which oftentimes leads to a heckler’s veto. This often has the effect of empowering the hecklers further.

  2. lanir says

    I think the balancing point is that hecklers sometimes try to make things more ambiguous while as someone organizing an event you want it to be very clear how you’ve treated them (for good or ill). When someone goes limp or other tactics to make it difficult to remove them, it takes some forethought and training to handle the situation correctly. Lacking that can lead to unintended outcomes.

    Not every event organizer is equally concerned about these issues of course.

  3. deepak shetty says

    Im curious if these thoughts are triggered due to Maryams incident or something else altogether,.

  4. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    I actually don’t know my position, and it’s starting to bother me. I’m leaning towards some “split the middle” approach where morally you cannot interrupt or obstruct lawful gatherings and speakers, and you can and will be removed, but perhaps sometimes it can be morally justified to engage in such tactics and suffer the legal consequences as per the standard civil disobedience practices of MLK Jr. Even then, I suspect that disrupting speakers of the other side is counterproductive, not in good taste, and that there are better approaches, even if it’s just to protest outside the event without disrupting the event. I don’t know.

  5. Mano Singham says


    Actually, it is something that I have been thinking about for some time but was triggered by the recent demonstrations at the rallies of political candidates in the US.

  6. says

    Hecklers would back down or shut up if they were allowed to speak and politicians had the courage to face them down. Aspiring politicians used to have the intellect and quick wit to face down hecklers and silence them with answers. Not so anymore as the quality of discourse declines.

    Give them microphones and thirty seconds to ask their question with no repercussions. If they don’t ask a coherent question in a polite manner, the mic goes off. And if they do ask one, the politician should have the spine to answer it instead of spin to avoid it.

    The voting public gets what they want and deserve. The hecklers are silenced so people can hear, and the politicians have to answer tough questions. Who cares if the hecklers and politicians don’t like it?

  7. Robert,+not+Bob says

    @ Leftover1under, #6
    That certainly applies to some hecklers, e.g. Black Lives Matter, but not to all: the aforementioned Islamists who harassed Maryam Namazie for example.

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