Disrupting Political Assemblies: Preserving the Liberal Tradition

The shouting down of speakers at public meetings, a well established phenomenon at universities, seems to be making a comeback in American political culture generally. Last Friday, I and perhaps 100 others attended a speech given by veteran Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) before the Washington, D.C. lawyers’ chapter of the Federalist Society at Tony Cheng’s restaurant in Chinatown. Sen. Hatch spoke on current legal controversies, and as he approached his discussion of the current vacancy on the Supreme Court, about eight persons, evidently at a prearranged signal, rose to their feet and began chanting slogans at the top of their lungs. The disrupters went on drowning out the senator for some time, refusing to stop or leave on request. (A news account is here.)

In the age of social media it was unlikely those taking part would remain anonymous, and indeed within hours the group responsible was boasting of having shut down a senior GOP Senator at one of his events. That group, whose staffers talked on Twitter of their role in the episode, turned out to be Generation Progress, a group whose Wikipedia entry notes that respectables such as Pres. Barack Obama, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin, the League of Women Voters, and Ambassador Samantha Power have cooperated in its activities. Indeed, Gen Progress is a 501(c)(4) affiliate of the very well established left-leaning Center for American Progress with its 2013 budget of $40 million. Call it a new model think tank.

The big national story, of course, is that the disruption of political events is rapidly spiraling toward a prospect of serious violence, especially at the rallies of presidential contender Donald Trump, who has been widely criticized for comments that might encourage some backers in rough behavior. A few points about that: 

1) If Side A rents a hall for a rally and Side B comes in and shouts down A’s speaker, what has happened is better described as “mob rule” than as “free speech.”

2) On the question of what constitutes incitement and solicitation to violence, Eugene Volokh sorts out a range of basic legal issues. Some will probably be new to many readers; for example, whether it is unlawful to physically tackle or drag hecklers who disrupt a meeting is a question that varies from one state’s law to the next, not a constitutional question. (And yes, the rules change somewhat when rallies are held in public spaces such as parks, but since even the freedom to hold rallies in private spaces is under challenge at the moment, that’s what I’ll discuss here.)

3) There is no contradiction between saying that a certain candidate or cause is a menace to public liberty that we should vote against or oppose, and saying that supporters of that candidate or cause deserve the right to rally in rented halls without attempts to disrupt or shout down their proceedings. Honoring an adversary’s right to engage in political assembly unmolested is not the same as supporting his cause, and contrariwise criticizing irresponsible things that a candidate may say does not somehow condone efforts to shout him down. 

4) It would probably have been helpful to start earlier on having a debate over the harms caused by mob political action and excuse-making for it in high places. For example, beginning last year, activists claiming to speak for Black Lives Matter and similar groups took over stages or otherwise disrupted events by Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O’Malley, leading to a round of celebratory reflection in many quarters about how the tactics had worked.     

5) “Disrupting political events is OK when we do it to them, but unacceptable when they do it to us” isn’t a principle conducive to peace, stable domestic equilibrium, or intellectual coherence – assuming peace, stability, and coherence are goals. The better course is to recognize rally disruptions as wrong when done by either or both sides, and deplore a permission-giving tone toward mob action across the board - from local activists and foundation grant officers all the way to sitting and would-be presidents. 

America’s political traditions are broadly classical-liberal, and over many successful periods of domestic tranquility these principles of physical forbearance toward political adversaries were widely observed among large groups of Americans whether they happened to call themselves progressives, conservatives, or something else. Will this broadly libertarian center now hold, or fail?