Worse still, the police, by threatening to charge the students with disorderly conduct rather than Prof. Kirk with vandalism, have established a “heckler’s veto” on SHSU’s campus. Institutions grant a “heckler’s veto” over expression when they allow the reactions of those who hear or see the expression to govern what might be said, creating an incentive for people to act disruptively or violently when confronted with speech they don’t like in the expectation that the police will shut it down. That’s precisely what happened in this case: Prof. Kirk’s destructive vandalism and claims of offense led the police to silence the expression of every student who wrote on the Free Speech Wall.
But in our free society, the police can’t censor speech simply because some people don’t like what’s being said. Instead, their job is to protect those with unpopular views from those who wish to silence them. And there are few places where this job is more important than a university campus, where it’s vital that all viewpoints be able to get a hearing if the search for knowledge is to take place.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I work) has written to SHSU President Dana Gibson asking her to restore free speech rights to her campus and allow students to express themselves and protest as the Constitution demands. Insults against President Obama might sound unpleasant to some, but the alternative — a society in which citizens must always meekly respect their leaders — is too unpleasant to contemplate.
Robert Shibley is the senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).