In a Senate hearing that took place this week, Senator Diane Feinstein defended the right of public universities to cancel controversial speaking events when they may lead to violence on campus.
“The fact of the matter is that there are certain occasions on which individuals assemble not to act peaceably, but to act as destructively as they possibly can,” Feinstein stated. “When you have a set group of people that come to create a disturbance, some of them even wearing masks or wearing certain clothing, what do you do?” Feinstein added. “I do believe that the university has a right to protect its students from demonstrations once they become acts of violence.”
UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh pushed back hard against Senator Feinstein, arguing that the First Amendment protects speech against the possibility of a heckler’s veto, which is the suppression of speech by a government out of concern of a violent reaction by protesters.
“There are of course times, as Senator Feinstein pointed out, that the University isn’t trying to suppress speech because it finds it offensive but because enough people who are willing to stoop to violence find it offensive that there is then the threat of a violent reaction to such speech,” Volokh said, “but I tend to agree with Senator Cruz’s view that that kind of a heckler’s veto should not be allowed.”
“The question was asked ‘When you have a set group of people who come to create a disturbance, what do you do?’ I think the answer is to make sure they don’t create a disturbance and to threaten them with punishment, meaningful punishment, if they do create a disturbance. And not to essentially let them have their way by suppressing the speech that they are trying to suppress,” Volokh continued.
Volokh argued that rewarding protesters with a cancellation of an event that they find objectionable will only serve to reinforce their behavior.
One of the basics of psychology that I think we’ve learned, and all of us who are parents I think have learned it very first hand, is behavior that is rewarded is repeated. When thugs learn that all they need to do in order to suppress speech is to threaten violence then there’ll be more such threats from all over the political spectrum. And I think the solution to that is to say that the speech will go on and if that means bringing in more law enforcement and making sure that those people who do act violently or otherwise physically disruptively that they be punished.
Feinstein countered by suggesting that public universities might not have the resources to handle a protest on the scale of the Berkeley riots that erupted before an event featuring former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos in early 2017.
“How should a university handle this,” Feinstein asked. “No matter who comes, no matter what disturbance the University has to be prepared to handle it…To me the extraordinary circumstance is when people come in black uniforms and hit other people over the head.”
“Right, and that cannot be enough to justify suppression of those who they came to try to suppress,” Volokh countered.
Tom Ciccotta is a libertarian who writes about economics and higher education for Breitbart News. You can follow him on Twitter @tciccotta or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org