THE BLOG
01/22/2014 10:06 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2014

UCLA: More Speech Is the Answer

Last November, 25 students at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) staged a demonstration during a class taught by Professor Val Rust, claiming that he contributed to a hostile environment for students of color through “micro-aggressions -- subtle or even subconscious digs at minorities. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), where I work, often reminds folks that the correct response to expression that one finds hurtful or offensive is more speech. But by effectively shutting a class down, the students executed a “heckler’s veto,” a form of censorship that detracts from, rather than contributes to, the “marketplace of ideas.”

During the demonstration at UCLA, students shared their experiences of racial hostility at the school. But while some allegations described actual harassment -- conduct that the school has a legal and moral obligation to prevent -- one student argued that Rust created a hostile climate in his class by simply correcting “perceived grammatical choices that in actuality reflect ideologies” and requiring students to use The Chicago Manual of Style. Last week on FIRE’s blog, The Torch, I explained why UCLA cannot and should not take action to punish or censor students and faculty for these or similar “microaggressions.” 

One troublesome aspect of this incident is that it demonstrates a mistaken belief that halting class was a commendable choice for students who wished to speak out against micro-aggressions. Inside Higher Ed reported that class was suspended for an hour by the sit-in. During that time, the protesting students decided that their peers should not have access to the course material that they paid for, and Rust was not able to teach his course. The protesters didn’t add their speech to a discussion; they used it to silence other speech. The students were not exercising their rights to free speech, but instead censoring their professor.

UCLA is not the only school to struggle with the “heckler’s veto” -- situations in which listeners who are offended take action to prevent others from hearing constitutionally protected expression. In October, for example, New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was prevented from speaking at Brown University when students who objected to his policies drowned out his speech. The students could have created a dialogue, forcing Kelly to defend himself in the question-and-answer session scheduled to follow his presentation. Instead, no conversation took place, and Kelly simply left. As my colleague Will Creeley wrote:

Silencing another’s message by sheer volume and force is an exercise in censorship. There is no First Amendment right to shout down a viewpoint with which one disagrees, no matter how deeply felt one’s opposition. As the Supreme Court of the United States has made plain, the “right to receive information and ideas, regardless of their social worth, is fundamental to our free society.” Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557, 564 (1969) (citation omitted). Justice Thurgood Marshall eloquently explained that “[t]he freedom to speak and the freedom to hear are inseparable; they are two sides of the same coin.” Kleindienst v. Mandel, 408 U.S. 753, 775 (1972) (Marshall, J., dissenting). To deem oneself the arbiter of what speech may and may not be heard by others is a breathtakingly arrogant act.

These are precisely the principles that UCLA students and administrators must keep in mind.

A case at Washington State University provides a more literal example of the heckler’s veto. In 2005, WSU administrators paid for students to attend student Chris Lee’s satirical production Passion of the Musical and disrupt the performance by shouting that they were offended. Following the school’s directions, the students forced the play to a halt. After FIRE wrote twice to WSU explaining that disruption wasn’t a “responsible” exercise of free speech (as WSU’s president had claimed), the school eventually reversed itself, stating before Lee’s next production that “disruption to [the] performance, or any program will not be tolerated.”

Of course, because different people will find different ideas offensive, there is no way to predict what speech offended students might decide to silence next. After all, some people may find The Chicago Manual of Style offensive; some may find historian Howard Zinn offensive; still others might be offended by this blog post. If all students silenced others based on their subjective opinion, very little would be left, and higher education’s central purpose -- exposure to new ideas -- would be impeded. Students would miss out on the opportunity to persuade others or be persuaded, or even simply to learn to defend their own viewpoints.The subjective nature of offense and the damaging effects of censorship are even greater when the alleged offenses consist of micro-aggressions, which can be committed without the speaker or even the target of the speech realizing it.

The First Amendment prohibits UCLA and other public institutions from censoring expression unless it falls into one of just a few narrowly-defined unprotected categories, and public colleges have a duty to ensure that all members of the school community can enjoy their right to free expression. Students should make efforts to support the school in that goal; after all, the actions that students take to silence others have a detrimental effect on the “marketplace of ideas” that is central to our nation’s colleges and universities -- and there’s no telling who will be silenced next.

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