When the opposing protest is the speech





It was interesting to read this article in Inside Higher Ed today:

Shouting Down Speakers Who Offend
Over the course of a month, students on several college campuses shut down speakers they disagreed with. Why is it so hard to forge a consensus on what protecting free speech really means?


The article portrays using crowds and shouting down speakers vs providing a platform for a speaker some consider controversial portrayed as a left-right division of free speech. The specific example is the SUNY Albany students protesting Ian Haworth at a Turning Points USA student event. To me this all seems more in line with the American understanding of free speech that loud group free speech is an appropriate response to something that is harmful (side note, I’ve seen similar confusion a lot from US academics as they conflate academic freedom and free speech in odd ways, I don’t know if that’s the case here).

We see this when groups try to shout down a right wing speaker, we see this when groups try to protest an abortion clinic, we see it when groups try to shut down drag story time at a library. In all cases those protesting see the thing they are protesting as being harmful and therefore the protest is a legitimate display of free speech. In two of the cases it’s a matter of free speech vs free speech. In all cases those on the other side of the political spectrum see it as too likely that the protesters will resort to violence (as has recently happened in some of the library protests) and therefore consider it illegitimate protest. But that’s not what this article is critiquing. It seems to be saying that controversial (non-illegal) hate speech at an event is an exercise of free speech, but shouting down the speaker is not. And that seems strange because of how the US views protest on public property.

In the US most state universities would be considered public property, so the bar for stopping these protests is very high (similar to trying to stop them in libraries, though because they are protesting events targeted to children instead of to adults there may be nuance I’m missing), which means that shouting down a speaker as long as you don’t bar them from accessing the venue (they didn’t in the main case used here) and you don’t stop them from speaking (they could speak but it would be hard to be heard over the crowd) would be legal. Of course when the event was moved to a private area of campus that disallowed the protestors the laws would have changed.

That leaves us with a question, because if we put two events up against each other we have left and right both protesting in public buildings to stop events they feel includes harmful speech. My basic understanding of US law is that the government isn’t supposed to shut down a speaker just because the hecklers *might* get violent in response, neither are they supposed to stop non-violent protestors in public spaces. However, at this point nearly everyone (though maybe not in a legal sense) has agreed that if the actions of the protestors include violence then that is a threat that prohibits the speech.

Context is important

This event didn’t happen in a vacuum. Although TPUSA is a big national organization it took about ten seconds to find that their last big event on campus brought in just under 30 students and no protestors, it was held in a closed room that wasn’t open to a public space. This second event then was in a larger room fitting over 100 people and directly connected to a public space, meaning two things: 1) they expected over three times the number of people from their prior event 2) they held this event specifically in a space that would be considered public property. Finally when they did move to a closed private space for the event, none of the media coverage or even their own comments, mention not fitting their attendees in, and all of the photos of the event show that the space was nearly entirely filled with protestors.

The other thing to know is that the first event gathered no press at all, I didn’t even see something in the local paper. The second event had a week of national media coverage over it.

Which implies to me that there was intent here. The meta speech of the event by the hosts *was* the protest. That is what publicized and amplified their speech, it’s what made people listen to them, see them, and pay attention to them. Thus there are three speech items at play, not two.

  • Group A held event (speech)
  • Group B peacefully protested event in a way that made the speech impossible to hear at the time (counter-speech)
  • Group A was able to have broader and louder speech because of the protest (counter-counter-speech)

So if group A got what they wanted and intended out of the event then is this actually a crisis of free speech, or is it exactly how the US system of free speech operates? No one was directly violent, and the closest thing to violence reported is that someone destroyed a bible. Which brings me back to the beginning. How should universities respond to this?

If the protest was prevented from happening not only would the speech of the protestors have been stopped by government actors, but the speech of the hosts would not have been as public as they wanted.

I think I’ll end off here by bringing up the idea of violence. Violent acts change the equation, but legally violent implications without immediate action isn’t supposed to. However, in the US it is difficult because it is so easy for things to change from implication to action because of their lax firearms laws. At what point of the violent spectrum should we step in?

  • Violent potential (where this protest was)
  • Violent implication
  • Violent possibility
  • Violent threat (where most of the anti-drag protests are)
  • Violent past actions
  • Violent preparation
  • Violent action

I think that’s a much more important discussion for us to have, and one that completely sidesteps any discussion of academic freedom but instead focuses on when we should shut competing speech down.

Post event story changes

In the immediate reporting by one of the hosts it’s clear that the event moved and proceeded. In the post event reporting it was said (by the same person) that the event had to be canceled. In addition, no one claimed the bible, which makes me unclear whether it was a protestor bringing it to destroy it, or a protestor taking it from an attendee and destroying it. Since grabbing a bible out of someone’s hand would clearly be something that would be reported in the media since it fits a certain narrative of the event I’m suspicious. Mostly it lends credence to the idea that the counter-counter-speech wasn’t only a benefit for Group A, but was in fact the point of the event.


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