Some may recall that during the era of McCarthyism, the House of Representatives had its own investigative body, known as the House Committee on Un-American Activities. That Orwellian name was dropped in 1969, but the label “un-American” remains part of our cultural lexicon today.
(For readers not of a certain age, “Orwellian” is an adjective describing a situation, idea or social condition that the writer George Orwell identified as being destructive to the welfare of a free and open society. It is most often associated with his book “1984” -- Wikipedia.)
Freedom of speech is central to the welfare of a free and open society. The US Constitution provides in part that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Lest no one miss the significance of these words, they were given the #1 position in the Bill of Rights. The right to free speech is protected but not unlimited; for example, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said that “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic” (Schenk v. United States, 1919).
The Constitution provides protection against limitations on free speech by the Government. It does not address activities of private individuals and organizations which can have a similar chilling effect. Recent months have seen a spike in attacks by some on the exercise of free speech by others with whom they do not agree. We have now entered the Age of Organized Heckling, the hallmark of which is the increased use of the Heckler’s Veto.
The Heckler’s Veto refers to situations where hecklers or demonstrators effectively silence a speaker without involving the use of government force. What were once rude and crude attempts to interrupt or embarrass a speaker or promote a cause have morphed into organized and professionalized infiltrations of speaking events with the intent to disrupt to the point of cancellation. Amazingly, these have become most prevalent at our institutions of higher learning, our colleges and universities whose principal purpose has historically been the full and free exchange of ideas. Astoundingly, some of these events have become violent, with masked and hooded “protesters” acting like gangland thugs destroying property and causing personal injury. These unacceptable actions on the part of a few jeopardize our ability to maintain our free and open society. They are not free speech; they are an intentional attack on the very nature of free speech. If performed by the government, they would be flagrant violations of the Constitution. They are un-American activities. If alive today, Orwell could write another book.
What to do? This is the tricky part. Government response is limited by the Constitution. Meeting violence with violence is not the answer. First, I think we need to develop a national consensus that this behavior is wholly unacceptable, that it is antithetical to the free exercise of a fundamental Constitutional right, and that it undermines our ability to preserve the free and open society that is the envy of the world -- i.e., that it is un-American. Second, since most of these speaking events are by invitation, even on our college campuses, consider requiring each attendee to sign an acknowledgement that attendance at the event is a privilege, that they respect the concept of a full and fair exchange of ideas, that they have no intention to interfere with that exchange, and that should they do so they understand and agree that they may be expelled from the event. And third, the national and local media should deny sympathetic press coverage to any violators of that policy. Essentially, adopt an approach that leverages mutual respect and moral suasion rather than government force or violence. It may not work every time, but it is a start, and one that is truly American!