THE BLOG
02/11/2011 01:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Heckler's Veto

A wise lawyer friend introduced me to the term "The Heckler's Veto". There is a strict legal meaning to this phrase and there is also its use outside of the legal context.

Briefly, the legal framework is based on a court case Hill v. Colorado 530 US 703, 735 where the US Supreme Court found that the government can not grant power to a private actor, the heckler, to unilaterally silence a speaker because of a concern for the violent reaction by the heckler. The excuse of the local government during the civil rights movement in the U.S. for not giving permits to civil rights marchers to protest segregation was that the marches would create a public danger or put participants in danger because of the violence that might ensue. The Supreme Court found this unacceptable and a deprivation of the First Amendment rights of the marchers.

Outside of legal parlance, it has come to mean that the heckler himself creates the veto and suppresses the speech by creating the violent reaction or the threat of violent reaction. The end result of this is usually that the individual who is potentially being heckled will self-censor for fear of the reaction it might create.

This term has come to my mind recently, and I now see how this concept can have such a chilling effect. To burn the Koran is morally repugnant, ethically deplorable and absolutely intolerable. For those reasons it should not be done by anyone. The reason that it might incite violence and put our troops in harms way was no doubt true but sits uneasily. How many cartoonists now think twice about their portrayals, not because they are not funny and gratuitous, but because they are now afraid of those who use violence rather than a pen as their means of expression?

I think about the young girls in Afghanistan who don't go to school because of the violence it might provoke. It is punishing the girls rather than those who are committing illegal acts. It is like accusing a rape victim of 'asking for it' rather than putting 100% of the blame on the rapist. One should not be afraid to protest legally in front of an abortion clinic nor be afraid of going into a clinic, or being a doctor providing services because of the potential for violence. Witnesses don't testify when they fear the results will harm them personally if they do. We anticipate and fear the reaction even though what we are doing is legal and what they are doing is illegal. The heckler wins even if they do nothing.

We become the problem rather than putting the blame where it belongs.

The heckler's veto hurts us all.