The Heckler’s Veto?

The Indiana Statehouse has been the focus of a lot of demonstrations over the years, and probably just as many efforts to abort–or at least minimize– those demonstrations. Remember when the KKK came to town? The argument was “We can’t let them use the Statehouse steps–people will riot and it will endanger public safety!” The same argument, of course, was made when Martin Luther King spoke at public venues in the South–public officials argued that he couldn’t be allowed to address the crowds because the local “bubbas” would riot and endanger public safety.

The courts have had a pretty standard response to such arguments: the First Amendment protects all expression, even “the idea we hate.” Neither the government nor the “hecklers” who disagree with the message get to veto other people’s right to speak.

The term “heckler’s veto” is shorthand for the proposition that people who don’t like an idea don’t get to “veto” its expression by threatening the public safety. If there is a genuine concern about safety, courts have uniformly held that the proper response is to address that concern–provide more police, remove weapons, fix rickety stairs or do whatever else it takes to minimize the perceived danger–without denying the speaker(s) First Amendment rights.

Which brings us to the current effort to minimize the message of people opposed to pending Right to Work legislation. If having lots of folks in “the people’s house” is truly dangerous, make whatever alterations/accommodations are necessary to ameliorate that danger. But it’s hard to accept the proposition that this sudden concern about “safety” is isn’t simply a transparently political effort to shut down political opposition, an effort at a somewhat more sophisticated version of the “heckler’s veto.”

Don’t believe that? Let’s engage in a “thought experiment” suggested by my son the other day.

Let’s say a member of the General Assembly offered a bill to provide public funding for late-term abortions, and his colleagues seemed likely to vote for that bill. How many of the legislators who are piously expressing concern for the “public safety” would be working to limit the number of people Eric Miller and his anti-choice cohorts could bring to the Statehouse?


  1. Right on! [no pun intended, well OK….pun not avoided). Eric Miller would have attorney Jim Bopp in court faster than a Mitt-flop to wrap the First Amendment around the right of Bible-Believing Christians to assemble, speak their minds, and express their religious views to the Statehouse rafters.

  2. Freedom of speech is supposedly guaranteed for ALL…not just some…of the people. Pro-choice and anti-choice alike have the right to have their voices heard. Governor Daniel’s actions violate that right, regardless of the issues or personalities involved. We can not, in a free society, permit this kind of malfeasance.

  3. Governer Daniels is a lousy human being who cares nothing about the rights of the general public. He has done a lot of things to hold down the working men and women in Indiana. But to try and take away our freedom of speech. What an asshole!!!

  4. Following quote is Congressman C. Wright Patman speaking of the Bonus Marchers (WW I soldiers) marching in the early thirties for their bonus for fighting in the war. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    Who were the so called bonus marchers? They were lobbyists for the cause. Just like the ones at the Mayflower Hotel. They certainly didn’t evict THEM. When the poor come to town, they’re trouble makers. Why certainly. They step on the grass and they’re put in jail for stepping on the grass. The Mayflower crowd, they don’t have any problem at all. They’re on every floor of every building of Capital Hill all the time.

    HARD TIMES – An Oral History of the Great Depression by Studs Terkel, page 318

  5. Those darned low railings at the Capitol always bothered me — maybe we ought to pass the hat and build a nice two-ring circus for the Legislature, someplace easy to care for and less likely to involve some sign-waver, bystander or stenographer taking a two-story header to a marble (terrazzo?) floor.

    Less gravitas and more low-maintenance linoleum! And halls too big to pack!

    (Yeah, the timing is lousy but it really is a poor place for packed crowds).

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