Heckling is not free speech

IN the upcoming months, it won't just be presidential-campaign season or football season, it will also be heckling season. Whether it's a Democrat or a Republican giving a speech, it's a sure thing there will be hecklers interrupting the political rallies. At the recent shadow convention in Philadelphia, Sen. John McCain was booed and heckled so frequently that he stopped his speech and threatened to leave the stage.

When it comes to politics, I'm pretty liberal on most issues. Whenever I see Charlton Heston in "Planet of the Apes" reruns, I find myself rooting for the apes. But no matter who the speakers at a rally are, I'm tired of hecklers interrupting them. I've seen it too often.

Back in 1984, I went to see Walter Mondale speak in Philadelphia at City Hall. I don't remember too much about what he said during his speech, but I remember vividly that every 10 seconds a pro-life protester in the crowd shouted out at the top of his lungs, "Baby Killer!" I was furious. I had come to see a presidential candidate speak and this guy was spoiling the event.

Four years later, I saw President Reagan speak at the University of Virginia. Even though I disagreed with his trickle-down economic policies, I wanted to see a president speak. The crowd consisted mainly of young Republican/Alex P. Keaton-preppy-types who loved the guy and welcomed him enthusiastically. There was, however, a group of about 25 protesters criticizing Mr. Reagan's emphasis on defense spending and his laissez-faire attitude toward homelessness and AIDS research. They yelled throughout Reagan's speech and frequently interrupted him. Although I agreed with the gist of the protesters' message, I was angry; I wanted to hear what Reagan had to say.

In 1992, I went to see Vice President Gore speak at JFK Plaza in Philadelphia. Before he spoke, there were speeches by Mayor Ed Rendell and senatorial candidate Lynn Yeakel. Throughout their speeches, a small group of people yelled out, "Sign Item 29," a bill pertaining to item pricing at local supermarkets. Then Mr. Gore came to the microphone and started speaking about the economy and education. The protesters kept shouting "Sign Item 29" at each pause. When Gore would yell "What time is it?" they'd yell "It's time to pass Item 29."

I eventually became furious and shouted out: "Give it a rest already. You made your point." A few others also shouted out: "Enough already; shut up." Gore noticed the commotion and said, "Listen. If you have something to say, I'll meet you over there after I'm done and I'll talk to you about your problem." The crowd cheered and the protesters were quiet the rest of the speech.

In 1996, I went to see President Clinton speak at Independence Hall. During the 30 minutes before his speech, a group of pro-life protesters was chanting slogans and holding up signs depicting Mr. Clinton as the "anti-life" candidate. One protester had a megaphone and was castigating him for allegedly murdering the innocent unborn. Most of the crowd appeared to be pro-choice and generally booed in response to the protesters. I was expecting a riot to break out during Clinton's speech. To my surprise and relief, the protesters were silent and merely held up signs while he spoke.

While there is no Emily Post/Miss Manners handbook on heckler etiquette, it's evident hecklers and protesters have a First Amendment right to speak as long as they don't incite a riot or breach the peace. However, balanced against this First Amendment right is an unwritten code of decency under which hecklers and protesters should let a speaker complete a speech without constant interruption or total disruption. It is a simple case of good manners and consideration for other people.

This is especially true in a presidential race, whether the protesters are liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican. You've got to give the speaker his or her say. Protesters can get their message across in ways that don't disrupt the speaker - protest and shout before and after the speaker speaks, silently hold up signs, hold a counter-demonstration a block away or nearby while the crowd files in and out.

I realize that the protesters at the rallies I've attended throughout the years strongly believe in the ideals they're fighting for. They also want the speaker to realize there's a dissenting view. Perhaps the fact that I remember these hecklers means that their protests were effective; still, they've got to realize that this isn't their forum. For those 20 minutes, this is the speaker's forum, and he or she should be permitted to speak.

Would I feel differently if I considered the speaker to be a vile, despicable person such as David Duke or a KKK grand wizard? No. No matter how hateful the message, the messenger has a right to get a message across. The approach I saw at the Clinton rally was encouraging, and I'd like to see more of it. We shouldn't have to resort to shouting down dissenters or to relying on the speaker's ability to rebuke them. While debate is healthy and necessary for a democracy, there are times when it can be delayed. This is one of those times.

Larry Atkins is a lawyer and writer.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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