The Heckler’s Veto

Speaking of “framing,” as I did a few days back, Jamelle Bouie had a recent column in the New York Times that addressed Republican efforts to re-brand censorship as “parental rights.”

The official name of Florida’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill, prohibiting “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity,” is the Parental Rights in Education Act. And the state’s Stop WOKE (short for Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees) Act, which outlaws any school instruction that classifies individuals as “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” was framed, similarly, as a victory for the rights of parents.

As Bouie points out, these bills certainly do empower certain parents–those who want to remove books, films, and even whole classes that they believe will expose their children to material with which they disagree, or to those parts of history about which they’d prefer their children remain unaware.

In Pinellas County, for example, a single complaint about the Disney film “Ruby Bridges” — about the 6-year-old girl who integrated an all-white New Orleans school in 1960 — led to its removal from an elementary school.

Lest we shake our heads and mentally write off Florida as an aberration, Bouie reminds readers that these efforts are not limited to Florida under the increasingly autocratic rule of the appalling Ron DeSantis.

In his 2021 campaign for the Virginia governor’s mansion, Glenn Youngkin made “parents matter” his slogan, and he has asserted “parents’ rights” in his effort to regulate the treatment of transgender children and end “divisive concepts” such as “critical race theory” in schools. His early moves included new history standards that removed discussions of racism and downplayed the role of slavery in causing the Civil War.

And at this moment, Texas Republicans are debating a bill — backed by Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — that, according to The Texas Tribune, “would severely restrict classroom lessons, school activities and teacher guidance about sexual orientation and gender identity in all public and charter schools up to 12th grade.” Texas parents, The Tribune notes, already have the right to “remove their child temporarily from a class or activity that conflicts with their beliefs or review all instructional materials.” This bill would further empower parents to object to books, lessons and entire curriculums.

These efforts certainly do “empower” a subset of racist and homophobic parents. They don’t empower the majority of parents who want their children to learn about–and learn from– accurate American history. And they run roughshod over the rights of parents who want schools to educate their children by offering them a wide library of thought-provoking, age-appropriate books and materials.

Bouie says these laws amount to the institutionalization of the “heckler’s veto,” an observation with which I fully agree.

What is the heckler’s veto?

The term originated as a judicial response to arguments often made when unpopular speakers came to town–think Martin Luther King in the South during the Civil Rights movement, or the KKK planning an “event” on Indiana’s Statehouse steps, or similarly contentious presentations that raise a non-trivial possibility of violence and protest. Those who wish to shut the speaker down use that threat of conflict to argue that allowing the speech to take place will be too dangerous.

If successful, that’s an argument that permits the “hecklers”–those who disagree with the message– to  mute the speaker, to “veto” his First Amendment Free Speech rights. The Courts have seen through that tactic, ordering localities to respond to the threat by deploying a police presence sufficient to ensure the public safety– not by disallowing the speech or rally.

“Parents’ rights,” is just another form of the heckler’s veto, giving some parents the right to deny a similar right to the parents who disagree with them. It is, as Bouie writes, a movement is that is meant “to empower a conservative and reactionary minority of parents” allowing them to dictate education and curriculums to the rest of the community.

It is part of a wider assault.

The culture war that conservatives are currently waging over education is, like the culture wars in other areas of American society, a cover for a more material and ideological agenda. The screaming over “wokeness” and “D.E.I.” is just another Trojan horse for a relentless effort to dismantle a pillar of American democracy that, for all of its flaws, is still one of the country’s most powerful engines for economic and social mobility.

The only parents these hecklers are “empowering” are the parents who are soldiers in the GOP’s war on intellectual honesty and public education.


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?