Communication Breakdowns: Heckling, Interruptions, Screaming Matches and Other Violations*

If you doubt that, try to watch the videos embedded in this link, if you can. You can’t, because the heckling drowns out the speaker. The police, we’re told, refused to escort the hecklers out on “free speech” grounds, but the ultimate result was that Levy was unable to give his speech. It’s an understatement to call that “problematic.”

The preceding set of videos happens to involve a pro-Palestinian speaker and pro-Israeli hecklers, but the principle applies all ways around. Here’s Israeli ambassador Michael Oren being heckled during a speech he gave (or tried to give) at UC Irvine in 2010. I admire Levy and despise Oren, but I have the same view in both cases: the anti-Oren hecklers, like the anti-Levy ones, should have been removed from the hall–by force, if necessary.

Heckling may well take the form of speech, but it violates free speech by interfering with the free speech rights–disturbing and interrupting the speech–of the person who has prior claim to the floor. It can sometimes be unclear who has prior claim to the floor–which is why we have rules of order–but it usually isn’t. When it is clear, it’s equally clear what should be done with hecklers: either shut up or be thrown out and locked out. This sort of reaction is graceful and intelligent, but it still sort of misses the point and misses the mark (I’m referring to the effort at persuasion before the removal). So should senators be thrown out of the State of the Union address? Yes, senators too.  For a one-word outburst? For a one-word outburst. Even if Obama was lying? Even if Obama was lying.

Feel free to demonstrate outside the hall, or to ask brutal questions during the Q&A–but speeches, like concerts, should compel absolute silence from the audience. If you’re sufficiently offended, leave. But if you decide to stay, the principle of free speech demands that you hold your peace–whoever you are, whoever the speaker is, and whatever the speaker is saying.

Postscript, October 28, 2015: This story (and video) doesn’t induce me to re-think my view on heckling, but it does induce me to offer a few caveats or qualifications. I linked to the preceding version of that story because it has the best video quality of any that I’ve seen, but (like the Huffington Post version of the story) it conveniently omits the fact that the protesters interrupted Trump’s speech by chanting at him. (The Huff Post video mentions the interruption.) I have no love for Trump, but I don’t think anyone has the right to interrupt his speech (or anyone’s speech) in this way.

As a first resort, in cases like this, the protesters should be told to stop interrupting. If they don’t agree to stop, or don’t stop, they should be removed from the premises of the talk. Ideally, they should be removed by parties designated to handle security (assuming that someone is designated). If a security detail is there, no one should be allowed to remove the hecklers but them. Obviously, if the talk is being guarded by a police detail, the task of removing hecklers is their job, not that of the audience.

If the hecklers/protesters don’t agree to leave, I still think they should be forced out. But the force used to remove them should be proportionate to the force by which they resist leaving: the less they resist, the less force is needed. Disproportionate uses of force should in this context be treated as new initiations of force–in other words, as battery. The video makes clear that the force used to remove these protesters was grossly disproportionate to what was needed to remove them. The guy in the pink shirt should absolutely have been (or be) arrested for battery.

It’s amazing that a person could be recorded on video as battering someone, and not just get away with it, but have essentially been incited into the act by a candidate for the U.S. presidency. But maybe it isn’t so amazing. Maybe it’s only as amazing as the fact that Donald Trump is the GOP front-runner for the presidency in the first place. And at this point, maybe that’s not so amazing, either.

Postscript, November 6, 2015: More of the same at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis,this time aimed at the Israeli ethicist Moshe Halbertal.  The excerpt in the link (from The Tablet) of the University’s Student Conduct Code seems to me to take the right approach to such matters.

I have to confess that I was tempted to heckle at this presentation I attended last night, at the Alanson White Institute in New York. The temptation is (nearly) overwhelming when a presenter consciously and strategically decides to bullshit the audience for 90 minutes, evading all substantive issues and abusing his critics more or less with impunity. But I decided to take my own advice–holding my tongue, leaving about twenty minutes early, and letting loose with a torrent of profanity once I was a safe distance from the hall. I’ll have to discuss the brazen dishonesty of Jeffrey Lieberman’s presentation–and the dismal intellectual standard of the entire evening–in a post of its own.

Postscript, November 9, 2015: Here’s a good summary of the Lieberman talk, minus a few things here and there in the three-way exchanges and the Q&A. I have a query out to the White Institute asking whether they’ll be making a video of the event public. I hope they will: I’m pretty sure the event was videotaped, and a wider public would benefit from watching the presentation and subjecting it to rational criticism. [Elizabeth Rodman, of the White Institute, in an email to me: “No, there is no video available for public viewing.”]

If Dr. Lieberman and his colleagues really mean what they say about rejecting the tribalism of psychiatry’s past (and that of psychoanalysis), now would be the time for a bit of transparency. Transparency, by the way, is the other side of the audience’s obligation to refrain from heckling a speaker: no one has the right the heckle, but the speaker has the obligation to come clean with his audience and allow for criticism rather than try his best to shut it down (a la Lieberman). It’s sad to have to explain all this to supposed professionals in mental health, but I guess we all profit from having to re-learn our ABCs sometime.

Postscript, November 12, 2015: Not exactly a “heckling” story, but in the same neighborhood. It seems hard to top, but then there’s always this.

Postscript, November 15, 2015: I don’t often agree with Brian Leiter, but this post on recent events at Yale seems to me exactly on target.

Postscript, November 16, 2015: Another discursive train wreck, this time at UT Austin, care of the Palestine Solidarity Committee. Don’t really see how this sort of thing promotes Palestinian rights. So if a bunch of pro-Israel protesters comes in to disrupt a defense of Palestinian rights, we’re obliged to let them disrupt the talk? Or is it that pro-Israel protesters wouldn’t have the same rights as defenders of Palestinian rights? Kind of stupid, no matter how you parse it.

Postscript, January 3, 2016: Here’s an interesting one, from a meeting in Orange County, New York involving a land-annexation dispute between the Hasidic community of Kiryas Joel and its non-Hasidic neighbors. Brooklyn assemblyman Dov Hikind shows up, and as an opening gambit insinuates (without explicitly coming out and saying so) that opposition to Kiryas Joel’s annexation bid is anti-Semitic. The crowd responds, understandably (but not in my view justifiably) with boos, jeers, and hisses. One guy in the second row stands up in protest at Hikind’s remarks and turns his back to him (Hikind himself had turned around to address the audience he was accusing). The presiding officer of the meeting asks security (in the form of uniformed officers) to usher the disruptive audience member out of the room. He refuses to leave, but promises to stay in his seat; eventually, security backs down.

Though I agree with the town council’s handling of the hecklers, Hikind’s behavior here is disgraceful. “The issue,” he thunders, “is not the annexation!” Actually, that’s exactly what the issue is, and a person who doesn’t want to discuss it has no business attending a meeting about it. Hikind doesn’t manage to say a single word about the merits of the annexation issue. He just engages in a bit of cheap demagoguery, then sits down. If Hikind has evidence of anti-Semitism, he should produce it. If not, he’s simply poisoning the well.

It’s actually unclear to me why a Brooklyn assemblyman would be asked or permitted to address an audience in Orange County (a good 90 minutes northwest of Brooklyn) on the subject of a disputed annexation there. In any case, the meeting’s presiding officer ought to have commented on the inappropriateness of Hikind’s comments. It’s not clear from this video how the officer reacted, or if he did. Contrary to the impression one gets, the jeering of the audience, though a problem, was far from the only problem in this episode. (Postscript, January 4, 2015: This critique of Hikind from a website run by Orange County locals is entirely on target.)

Soundtrack by Led Zeppelin (sort of)….

*I’ve renamed this post to better reflect the postscripts.