Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Free Speech and the Heckler's Veto

Regarding Bill Maher's speaking at Berkeley:
“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.

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.
As much as I can't stand Maher himself, the protesters are worse.  Much worse.


Jean said...

Agreed. Besides, as much as there is no right to be a commencement speaker, there is no right to force everyone to have the commencement speaker of your choice. Nobody has to listen to the commencement speaker--heck, nobody has to go. At Berkeley, and I presume at most large universities, each dept. has their own graduation ceremony (also optional) and the speaker is at a large ceremony that does not involve 'walking' and that half the students do not attend at all. I have a vague impression that Bill Cosby was the celebrity speaker when I graduated from Cal in 95 (imagine the uproar that choice would cause now!), but I didn't go so I don't really know.

maxutils said...

In a lot of ways, I find Bill Maher to be a lot like Obama … smug, condescending, and kind of a know it all … but he's a lot funnier. I liked him a lot more when he hosted the much-funnier-and-better network show, "Politically Incorrect" (BTW --2 of his favorite guests on that show were Ann Coulter and (at that time) conservative Ariana Huffington. Back then, he was a true Libertarian, and a lot more interesting. Now, after being shut out of his network show because of the conservative side of his beliefs, he's apparently decided to play along, somewhat … but still isn't afraid to call out religion themed terrorism for why it is -- unlike Obama. I can understand why that might be upsetting to some, but kudos for UCB for letting him speak, and shame on the committee who thought he was fine until he said something they didn't like. I must say … that's a commencement speech I wouldn't mind sitting through.