October 29, 2006

The right to silently protest a speaker.

On Friday, I wrote about the UW-Oshkosh police throwing students out of a lecture for standing and turning their backs to a speaker -- who happened to be UW's own 9/11 conspiracy theorist, Kevin Barrett. I also raised this question with the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights, and UW polisci prof Donald Downs -- president of the group -- wrote this (and wanted me to copy it here):
The key point is to balance the rights of the protesters with the rights of the speaker and the audience. Protesters have a right to make their views known, but they must not infringe the rights of the speaker and the audiences. So the following questions are relevant:

1) Were the protesteros actually disrupting others' views?

2) If so, HOW LONG did they obstruct the view? A symbolic gesture to turn the back that prevented people in the audience from seeing the speaker is fine, so long as the act is short and does not block views for a meaningful period of time (a couple of minutes, max, it would seem to me);

3) how did the police react? Did they make an attempt to talk with the protesters, and did the protesters make any attempt to make it clear that they were not trying to disrupt the audience's view? This is a factual call about which we lack evidence;

4) how have similar speech actions been treated by authorities in the past? This is Ann's key question. Ann's question has validity because in my entire time at Madison, I have never witnessed a conservative group attempting to disrupt a speaker, only leftist groups opposed to the speaker. In no case has the leftist group ever been punished or even spoken to by the administration. In some cases, it was evident who was doing the disruption, as in the Ward Connerly disruption in 1998. But we still need to know the facts in the case at hand. What we want in these encounters is even-handedness (viewpoint neutrality) on the part of authorities, plain and simple.


Bird Dog said...


There is a double standard. Conservative protesters are "mean-spirited," while Lefty protesters "care."

How simple is that? And university administrator can figure that out.

jinnmabe said...

1) Were the protesters actually disrupting others' views?

2) If so, HOW LONG did they obstruct the view?

Putting these back to back induces a bit a confusion. Does #1's "views" mean "opinions" or "sightlines"? Does #2's "view" mean "opinion" or "sightline"?

If either one means "sightline" then, frankly, it's a silly complaint unless visuals were being used as part of the "free speech." I would think protests which make it difficult to impossible to even HEAR the opinions of the speaker are in a different class than protests which leave the message alone, but simply block your view, like some illmannered person at the opera with a tall hat.

Ann Althouse said...

Jinnmabe: Well, I'd be pretty irked if I went to a lecture and some people right in front of me insisted on standing right in front of me the whole time.

Ann Althouse said...

... although I guess kids are pretty used to having that happen at all sorts of concerts and things where standing is a way of expressing approval.

yetanotherjohn said...

If the rules are enforced fairly, I think that it is a good thing to promote letting the other side's opinion being heard.

But this protest by conservatives seems very tame to me by comparison to what the left seems to do on a regular basis. If the rules aren't evenly applied, I suspect UW will not enjoy the attention of the state legislature.

jinnmabe said...

Ann, I'd be irked too. But is it a "free speech" issue? Such that you'd call security to deal with it? Or is that kind of thing more appropriately dealt with by an usher. "Hey, down in front!"

Ann Althouse said...

Jinmabe: The most important thing is that whatever standard is adopted that it be equally applied across the political spectrum. But I favor less repression. They could have been asked to sit down, and perhaps they were. I'd like to know the whole context. (I know I wouldn't accept students in the classroom behaving like that.)

Richard said...

Prof Downs thinks authorities on a modern day college campus can achieve "viewpoint neutrality"? Who's he kidding?

Ann Althouse said...

Richard: We are not kidding. We demand viewpoint neutrality. CAFAR is an important organization on campus, and Prof. Downs is a very respected and serious proponent of free speech. CAFAR supported the decision on Barrett and has taken many principled positions.

JohnF said...

I'm going to disagree on this, because I simply don't see any justification for interrupting an assembly of people who wish to hear a speaker in this setting.

What message will not be heard if people aren't allowed to stand up in the middle of the audience? Just the message that, e.g., "I am a spoiled brat, and I'd like to show off for you now." Nothing of any substance certainly.

Audible interruptions are harder to classify, since the speaker may want to hear occasional applause--for which I suppose he must accept some boos. Or not. I think if the speaker says, please don't interrupt until I finish, both sides ought to respect that. Those who don't can, I believe, properly be ejected. They can find plenty of soapboxes elsewhere.

Ed said...

Compare and contrast:

Students protest 9/11 conspiracy theorist by standing with their backs turned to him, and are ushered out of the assembly by police.

Students storm the stage to protest the leader of the Minutemen, yelling, waving banners, and charging the speaker. The students are allowed to remain on stage.

Shanna said...

Ann's question has validity because in my entire time at Madison, I have never witnessed a conservative group attempting to disrupt a speaker, only leftist groups opposed to the speaker.
This is somewhat telling.

I would think if you were planning to do this (turning your back on the speaker) protest, the best thing to do would be to occupy seating at the back of the auditorium, so as not to disturb anyone who actually wanted to see the lecturer while making your point.

A well mannered cut direct.

jinnmabe said...

I'd like to know the whole context.

Me too.

(I know I wouldn't accept students in the classroom behaving like that.)

Nor would you tolerate students yelling, rushing the podium, and breaking your (purely figurative) glasses. What you said about equal application is the crux here. I agree with that, but I don't think it means that a passive form of protest merits the exact same response as a violent form of protest. That doesn't seem like equal application to me. And I'd expect common sense to dictate that a silent, peaceful protest be met with a "please sit down" and then a "if you don't sit down, you'll be asked to leave" and THEN a forced, security-escorted exit.

Ron said...

Perhaps Barrett is just the forerunner of a new academic discipline; Conspiracy Studies. You may laugh but someday we'll see the Zapruder Chair of ConspStud.

Fenrisulven said...

I would advise students to contact FIRE:


University admins usually need to be dragged kicking & screaming to protect conservative free speech on campus. FIRE does just that.

If anything, it will get the administration's attention and "encourage" them to negotiate fairly with you.

Pogo said...

I appreciate Professor Downs' approach, but in light of the differential treatment he himself cites, I cannot take UW very seriously on this matter.

It's quite clear there are and will be two standards: one for the correct opinions, and one for the rest.

paul a'barge said...

Pogo is correct ... it would take major, concerted, long-term work by UW administrators to change the valid opinion of the university system that anything remotely approaching fairness is afoot.

You just can't continue to allow proponents of the theory that the US "did" 9/11 to hide behind freedom of speech and then to allow university police to arrest those who protest him, all the while posturing that you're into fairness.

We're not buying no bananas today.