The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

"The Act of Silencing a Speaker Is Fundamentally Contrary to the Values of This School"


From Fox News (Jessica Chasmar):

Ilya Shapiro, a constitutional scholar who recently found himself in hot water over a tweet about President Biden's Supreme Court nominee, was shouted down by law students in San Francisco, videos show.

Shapiro joined a discussion Tuesday afternoon about Justice Stephen Breyer's Supreme Court vacancy at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, but he was interrupted by protesters pounding on desks and chanting "Black lawyers matter." …

UC Hastings sent a letter to students Wednesday morning condemning the protesters' behavior, saying it violated the code of conduct.

"The act of silencing a speaker is fundamentally contrary to the values of this school as an institution of higher learning; it is contrary to the pedagogical mission of training students for a profession in which they will prevail through the power of analysis and argument," the school said in the letter, obtained by Fox News Digital.

Glad UC Hastings responded, and I hope that the violations of the code of conduct will come with some actual disciplinary measures. I'm not out for blood here: Shouting down a speaker is bad, but I think not, say, an offense meriting expulsion. There just ought to be some meaningful punishment for such misbehavior, or else the misbehavior will just get repeated.

I've heard some people argue that such heckling is itself constitutionally protected speech, but I don't think that's right (at least unless a school deliberately opens up such presentations as free shouting zones for everyone). Generally speaking, schools may and do set up viewpoint-neutral restrictions on speech at such events, generally that the speakers speak for X minutes and then the audience gets to ask questions for Y minutes, with the speakers responding. And of course student groups at law schools are generally free to set up their own events, where their views can be presented without being shouted down (or even materially interrupted by chanting and the like).

Of course, if shouting down is considered acceptable speech, I expect that many people may want to take advantage of it: some anti-abortion activists who oppose pro-abortion-rights speakers, some anti-critical-race-theory activists who oppose critical race theorists, some gun rights activists who oppose advocates of what they see as oppressive and unconstitutional violations of people's gun rights, and more. I'd rather that none of them get to shout down rival speakers—but if critics of Shapiro were entitled to "silenc[e]" him at UC Hastings, then First Amendment viewpoint-neutrality rules would require that critics of other speakers would be entitled to silence them, too.