University of Illinois cracks down on 'heckler's veto'
- The University of Illinois system released a new set of guiding principles Friday that explicitly prohibit students from exercising a “heckler’s veto” to prevent free speech on campus.
- During the past semester, students temporarily shut down the Homecoming parade, a woman aggressively disrupted a College Republicans meeting, and a school employee was arrested for assaulting two conservative students on campus.
The University of Illinois system released a new set of guiding principles Friday that explicitly prohibit students from exercising a “heckler’s veto” to prevent free speech on campus.
“An unyielding allegiance to freedom of speech—even controversial, contentious, and unpopular speech—is indispensable to developing the analytical and communication skills of our students and empowering all members of our university communities to be active and informed citizens,” the document asserts before outlining measures designed to safeguard that freedom.
While the university system vows to “vigorously and even-handedly protect community members against conduct that falls outside the First Amendment—including true threats, pervasive harassment, incitement to imminent lawless action, and libel—regardless of whether that illegal conduct happens to be undertaken for expressive purposes,” it also makes clear that conduct intended to disrupt lawful speech will not be tolerated.
“We welcome and encourage members to respond to speech with which they disagree by engaging in counter-speech of their own. But we will not condone shouting down or physically obstructing or threatening a speaker or the speaker’s audience,” the statement explains. “Such activities are antithetical to the primary value on which freedom of speech rests: a commitment to the power of ideas rather than the use of force to influence the way people think and act.”
Although the new guiding principles have been under development since July, their release comes near the end of a contentious semester during which students temporarily shut down the Homecoming parade, a woman aggressively disrupted a College Republicans meeting, and a university employee was arrested for assaulting two conservative students.
The principles also address two other issues, Civic Engagement and Globalization and Immigration, but both sections lack the specificity of the free speech portion, instead offering broad commitments to maintaining “traditions of internationalism” and offering students “opportunities for substantive civic engagement.”
Jack Johnson, vice president of the school’s College Republicans chapter, told Campus Reform that he supports the new guiding principle on free speech.
“As Republicans we have always been keen on free speech—it is essential to our party and our nation,” he explained, noting that the portion of the policy pertaining to the “heckler’s veto” is especially welcome.
“It is the most applicable to the University's recent troubles, namely the protests up to and including the homecoming parade,” Johnson said. “It would be highly unethical for the University to allow a handful of triggered students—hecklers—to overwrite the First Amendment rights of [other] students.”
University of Illinois system President Timothy Killeen was similarly emphatic about the need to prevent disruptive protests
“The so-called 'heckler's veto,' we're not going to condone on campus, no matter how egregious some of the speech might be felt by the listening community," he told The News-Gazette.
“We do expect there will be events in the future that will test some limits,” he acknowledged, saying, “We're going to have to exercise judgments, and the appropriate authority in each case will be as well-prepared as we can make them.”
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