Opinion: It’s Within Our First Amendment Rights to Shout Down a Speaker
It is far within their individual and collective rights for socially conscious students to intimidate a speaker whose views they disagree with to cancel their speech. As a group of individuals, students are as free to say what they want to the speaker they would like to shut down. The ability to challenge what we deem inappropriate is one of the founding principles of this country: ensuring that the government cannot silence the individual.
They should remain unafraid of the consequences of prompting armed police in riot gear from flooding campuses and proud when a speaker who has subversive, controversial or different views backs down voluntarily in response to mob rule. Ann Coulter cancelled her own speech at Berkeley after weighing her physical security in the aftermath of the violent, expensive protests over Milo Yiannopoulos’s speech in February, and she could not cite a violation of her constitutional rights because of this personal decision.
Supreme Court cases that deal with the First Amendment on state university campuses will look at instances where a speaker or a body representing the speaker come into conflict with the institution or the people who represent it. The Berkeley College Republicans, for example, are not suing the student body but University of California, Berkeley itself. The University of Florida, aware that rejecting Richard Spencer’s speech would violate his First Amendment rights and after the threat of a lawsuit against the school, allowed it to continue as planned. In turn, a state university cannot suppress students protesting over a controversial speaker. State schools, receiving money from their state, are extensions of that state’s government, and unlike private universities, come under tougher scrutiny when censoring any type of speech.
However, students would be wise to be prudent and show tact while protesting. By becoming as disruptive as the students in Florida, institutions become compelled, either out of a sense of morality or security, to censor a speaker. Here the First Amendment will turn against the students and the school: Maintaining awareness of the heckler’s veto is a long-standing tradition of the Supreme Court. First recognized in Feiner v. New York (1951) against progressive speech and then used in a footnote in the judgement of Brown v. Louisiana (1966), the heckler’s veto has become intertwined with the actions taken by institutions when student protesters demand that a speaker be silenced.
Protests by students who demand their universities take actions are more often becoming sites of “clear and present danger,” where speech is not protected by the First Amendment — seen when Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in preparation for Spencer’s attendance. As reported by Laurel Wamsley of NPR, the cost of burden is upwards of $500,000 which will be paid for by students’ tuition and Florida taxpayer dollars.
Nicholas Dirks, Chancellor of Berkeley spoke of the fine line that schools and students must reckon with whenever someone disruptive comes to campus: “This University has two non-negotiable commitments: one to free speech, the other to the safety of the campus community members, their guests, and the public.” Most students would be hard pressed not concur with Dirks. But if a state university successfully prevents a controversial speaker from speaking, student protesters and their First Amendment rights are vulnerable to coming under scrutiny by the Supreme Court, even if they feel they are shouting down a speaker for a good reason.