Tag Archives: heckler’s veto

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?