Recently, a professor of history at City University of New York (CUNY) objected to my support for specific provisions of North Carolina’s HB527, which allow student hecklers who disrupt campus speeches to be subjected to campus disciplinary procedures. After he shared one of my remarks on Twitter, many of his followers made accusations of “hypocrisy.” Their reasoning was that one’s opposition to safe spaces requires support for an unfettered right to heckle speakers. In other words, the person who seeks to restrict heckling is somehow creating a safe space for campus speakers. Therefore, he must also support safe spaces generally lest he be guilty of hypocrisy. This argument, which is easy to rebut, is the subject of today’s column.
Understanding the need to prevent a heckler’s veto of speech requires some degree of historical literacy. Those who wish to learn about the history of those who have claimed a right to shout speakers down in the name of free speech need only read the Supreme Court’s opinion in Gregory v. Chicago (1969). In this landmark case, Dick Gregory was attempting a peaceful protest against continued school segregation in defiance of another landmark decision, Brown v. Board of Education (1954). White racists who did not like his speech threw things at him and shouted him down by screaming racial epithets, including the n-word. When Chicago police asked Gregory to stop speaking he rightly refused. Along with several other peaceful protestors, he was then arrested.
When the Supreme Court justices overruled Gregory’s conviction, they were affirming the common sense view that there is no First Amendment right to negate the First Amendment rights of other citizens who are assembled peaceably and speaking lawfully. Put simply, the police arrested the wrong people in Chicago that night. It does not take a PhD in history to arrive at such an obvious conclusion.
Nor does it require much intellectual firepower to understand that opposition to providing safe spaces and support for providing protection from hecklers are completely consistent positions. Those of us who oppose safe spaces on campuses do not like the idea of permanently setting aside physical areas where certain viewpoints are banned. We reject the efforts of those trying to assert a right to feel comfortable as a means of negating even mildly offensive speech. The idea of allowing emotions to negate ideas is simply antithetical to the notion of a classical liberal education.
Of course, the same logic leads us to oppose the heckler. He simply cannot lose control of his emotions and begin screaming until the speaker can no longer be heard. Allowing such a negation of speech on our campuses is also antithetical to the notion of a classical liberal education.
In addition to being logically confused, the pro-heckling supporters of the CUNY history professor have confused their facts. By demanding that hecklers refrain from shouting me down during my speeches, I have not asked for the creation of a safe space. When I am finished speaking, the opposition can simply occupy the very same podium (read: space) and express the opposite point of view. Any group should be able to schedule an event in a university auditorium, regardless of the viewpoint they are advancing. And any heckler who tries to shut it down should be ejected, regardless of his viewpoint. This is not hypocrisy. It is simply common sense applied consistently.
But let us talk for a moment about the hypocrisy of the heckler who also supports permanent campus safe spaces. He demands a place to share his ideas without opposition – and he does so in the name of safety and comfort. Yet he kicks and screams in the presence of others who wish to speak outside of the designated safe space. Thus, his commitment to “safety” and “comfort” hinges upon his agreement with the viewpoint being expressed. His hypocrisy is further accentuated by the fact that he adopts the tactics of yesterday’s racists and calls himself progressive.
Of course, this is not progress. Nor is it liberalism. It is ignorance and fanaticism marching backward under the banner of enlightenment.