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Who Gets to Speak and Be Heard?

The first rule of free speech is that everyone gets to speak as long as they don’t break the law (like shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater or slandering someone).

Yet college campuses are at siege right now over this very issue. Take the University of California, Berkeley, which is known as the home of the free speech movement.  But there, on February 1, the planned speech by Milo Yiannopoulos was ended because of riots and violence.  This week Ann Coulter’s April 27 appearance was cancelled, then rescheduled for May 2 when Coulter says she’s unavailable, and now Berkeley being sued, and Coulter is promising to show up on the 27th anyhow.

From an article by Adam Steinbaugh of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education):

“As a public university, Berkeley is unquestionably bound to comply with the First Amendment. The university itself doesn’t have to extend an invitation to any speaker in particular, but a public university — an agency of the government — can’t veto who its students invite to speak. Speech is not deprived of protection under the First Amendment simply because is viewed as offensive or hateful…

“But the First Amendment does not permit law enforcement to ban or burden speech on the basis that some people opposed to the speaker might, or are even likely to, react in a violent manner with the intent of stopping the speaker. When it does impose such a burden for that reason, it has established what is known as the “heckler’s veto.” When this is allowed to happen, it provides an incentive for protesters who wish to silence a speaker to act violently, knowing that the police will do the silencing for them. As the Supreme Court held in Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement (1992), restrictions based on the expected violent opposition to a speaker would work to inhibit the expression of ‘views unpopular with bottle throwers’:

“In a balance between two important interests — free speech on one hand, and the state’s power to maintain the peace on the other — the scale is heavily weighted in favor of the First Amendment. … Maintenance of the peace should not be achieved at the expense of the free speech…”