“Free speech” is the wrong category in which to think about attempted commencement shutdowns. Nobody has a right to be a commencement speaker. Nobody has a right to the rostrum of a university. Nobody has a right to the attention of thousands of students and parents. Indeed, nobody has a right to any particular audience at all: The right to speak freely is always balanced by the right not to pay attention.As much as I can't stand Maher himself, the protesters are worse. Much worse.
More awkwardly still, those agitating to disinvite a commencement speaker will claim they are merely exercising free-speech rights of their own. Petitions, demonstrations, protest—why aren’t those equally to be defended?
Here’s why. When protesters mobilize against an invited university guest, they are not merely expressing disapprobation of a selection. They are threatening the university with embarrassment or worse unless the university yields to their wishes. It’s the university, not the speaker, who is their target. What they want from the university is not the right to be heard, but the right to veto. More exactly: These battles over campus speakers are not battles over rights at all. They are battles over power.
The anti-Maher protesters explicitly demanded this power for themselves: "Do not force us to tolerate the speaker that you selected, without our input, for our event. We demand the power for students to choose the commencement speakers and to reject the university administration’s suggestions.” But as a matter of fact, Berkeley students do choose their own commencements speakers. Invitations are issued by the elected leadership of a student society whose membership is open to all Berkeley students in good academic standing. The Maher protesters wished to over-ride this process—and to claim for their own pressure group the unique right to speak for all Berkeley students.
Tuesday, November 04, 2014
Free Speech and the Heckler's Veto
Regarding Bill Maher's speaking at Berkeley: