Keep practice of heckling alive
Published: Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, October 5, 2011 16:10
A common form of expressing discontent came under fire recently in California.
Recently, Mother Jones reported that a jury convicted 11 students from the University of California–Irvine and the University of California–Riverside of misdemeanor charges for disrupting a public meeting. Those charges stemmed from their heckling of Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador to the U.S., during a speech in February 2010, according to Mother Jones.
Prosecutors during the trial argued that the students infringed on Oren's First Amendment rights. Dan Wagner, assistant district attorney for Orange County, argued this point in court, according to Mother Jones.
"Free speech is not absolute," Wagner said. "It does not include the right to suppress or cancel another person's right to free speech. If it did, then no one would have the right to free speech."
Although heckling can be viewed as undesirable at times, it would be wrong to make it illegal. This could lead students to not exercise their free-speech rights for fear of getting in trouble. Hector Villagra, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said that the decision could have a potential chilling effect for students wanting to exercise their freedom of speech in the state, according to Mother Jones.
"If allowed to stand, this will undoubtedly intimidate students in Orange County and across the state and discourage them from engaging in any controversial speech or protest for fear of criminal charges," Villagra said.
Heckling is something that has been a traditional part of American culture. Many legendary comedians such as Richard Pryor and George Carlin earned their stripes through dealing with hecklers. Some might even argue that it helped them to become the great comedians they are remembered as today.
Being heckled is also a standard rite of passage for anyone in or aspiring to a public office. Seeing how a public official deals with a heckler provides a unique insight into the personality of the candidate. Former President Bill Clinton has dealt with various hecklers throughout his political life, and the end result was candid responses that allowed people to see his human side.
Heckling, by itself, should not be made illegal. Those hosting events should reserve the right to have disruptive individuals removed from them. To take it a step further and have them arrested and face trial could instill fear into those who might be seeking to question public officials. A person could become afraid of being arrested for asking a question that is too pointed or for questioning an official too aggressively about a topic.
UC Irvine also came out against the ruling. According to Mother Jones, the college told the LA Times that it felt that its disciplinary actions on the matter were sufficient punishment. They chose to suspend the UC Irvine Muslim Student Union, according to Mother Jones. Villagra also points out that there are better ways to spend the money required to prosecute this case.
"The extraordinary resources required for the criminal prosecution and trial of these  young men — including having the head of the district attorney's homicide division leading the effort — would have been better used to fight crimes that endanger the residents of Orange County than to chill speech and discourage student activism," Villagra said.
Heckling should not be made illegal because it could ultimately have the effect of reducing free speech among students and communities as a whole. It is even possible that strong questioning of public officials could be construed as heckling, which is a critical part of an informed democracy. We should not be suppressing voices by making this illegal.