Nonviolent Disruption of Free Speech
Posted on April 26, 2017
Disrupting speech is an interesting test case for two liberal theories: nonviolent resistance and freedom of speech and assembly.
Now in general I can support just about any form of nonviolent resistance, provided it passes some tests of reasonableness, for example:
1. True nonviolence means that resistance should not consist in damage to persons or property. (Granted there can be hard issues of indirect damage, e.g. if the cops hold a civilian population hostage.)
2. Resistance should be part of coherent strategy and tactics based on constant learning from experience.
3. There should be a reasonable likelihood of success.
4. The ultimate goal should be a significant matter of social justice.
Therefore I can support nonviolent disruption of free speech in certain cases.
But free speech rights are complicated notions. Thus if I go to a speech and shout “Boo!” it is a form of nonviolent disruption usually considered to be quasi-legitimate–in large part because it is itself simply a form of speech. Holding up signs is another speech act that can be disruptive.
More generally, nonviolent resistance is to a significant degree itself simply another means of speech or expression. It is intended to send a message. It is intentionally exercised in a venue where that form of expression is not permitted, and it usually disrupts some other legitimate activity—because that disruption is what is takes to get a message attended to. In the most effective forms of protest, the disrupted activity in itself exemplifies the social injustice being protested–as in the sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. However that kind of direct connection is not always available, and sometimes protesters must attack less apropos targets.
Nonviolent resistance nearly always violates some overriding property rights. It is exactly those property rights that define the protest as out of order, and hence worth of notice. For example, in the case of disrupting a speaker, the speaker has priority because of her property right to control that venue at that time.
So we started out with free speech theory and are somehow edging into a theory of capitalist property rights.
Now I am not criticizing as such the notion that there should be property rights for the use of a particular venue. If you accept the value of an open deliberative or performative assembly, then you must accept the idea that the assembly will be disciplined–everyone cannot talk at the same time, and violators can ejected, and so on. The right to discipline an assembly or a performance is a property right–e.g. you might rent the rights to put on a performance at a particular venue on a certain night, and you would expect to throw out any disrupters.
However I assert there is a natural right to SHARE that kind of property right with some degree of equality among citizens. When access to venues is monopolized by one or a few messages or interests, then the ethical justification for excluding disrupters vanishes. That is, there is nothing open about a deliberation permanently monopolized by a single voice that drowns out all others. Thus the execrable Citizens United SCOTUS decision tends to support an effective monopoly of political speech by dark money wielded by the very rich; if it proves possible to disrupt that process in politically effective ways, I will support disruption.
However I do not support the recent efforts to prevent ur-fascist speakers on college campuses. Right-wingers are very far from having a monopoly of campus speech. While there could be other strategic reasons for nonviolent resistance to ur-fascist speech, I’m not aware of any coherent strategic plan that leads from speech disruption to social improvement.