Is Heckling A Speaker A Crime?

Short Answer: It depends (my favorite two words as a lawyer).

Fuller Answer: Isolated heckles by an individual are protected speech under the First Amendment. But an intentional and sustained effort to disrupt a lawful public assembly by heckling the speaker is unlawful in many states–and it should be. Eugene Volokh, a leading First Amendment scholar, explains the law in this helpful article.

I raise this issue now in light of last night’s ugly violence at UConn, where an alt-right speaker named Lucian Wintrich was arrested for allegedly assaulting a student after she apparently grabbed materials from his podium. Before the assault, Wintrich’s speech had been repeatedly interrupted by students chanting statements like “Go home Nazi.”  But two wrong do not make a right.  Wintrich did not have a right to respond to the heckling, or to the apparent seizure of materials from his podium, by assaulting a student.

Wintrich’s speech was provocatively entitled “It Is OK To Be White.” He was invited to speak on campus by the UConn College Republicans. Whatever one thinks of Wintrich’s views (I find them deeply disturbing), the student group had a right to invite Wintrich, and he had a constitutional right to speak on campus, and to do so free of constant interruption. College campuses should not be “safe spaces” where the only speakers who are welcome are those whose viewpoints are agreeable to a majority of students on campus.



One Comment on “Is Heckling A Speaker A Crime?”

  1. I agree with you, Dan. Another way to look at it–as I know you know, I just submit this for others–sometimes, it’s not about the content of an utterance. Sometimes, it is about the noise–any similar sound would not have been okay. If it is about the noise, then restricting the speech is much more likely to be kosher. If it is about the viewpoint or content of what was said, a restriction is much less likely to be kosher.

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