“Heckler’s Veto”: Two Related Meanings

Recently, there has been much talk about Heckler’s Vetoes. I was curious to see if this phrase had two meanings. They have different legal consequences, but they are closely related.

[1.]”Heckler’s Veto” is most commonly used to refer to, to quote Black’s Law Dictionary: “The government’s restriction and curtailment of speakers’ rights to freedom of speech when necessary for preventing possible violent reactions by listeners.” This is an example of an earlier reference by the Supreme Court.Louisiana v. Brown (1966)):

Participants in an orderly protest in public places aren’t charged with any danger. Please refer to Cox v. Louisiana; Wright v. Georgia; cf. Terminiello v. Chicago…. See also Kalven, The Negro, and the First Amendment for more information on the issue of the “heckler’s veto”. 140-160 (1965).

A heckler’s right to veto is consistent with the First Amendment. This involves the government restricting speech due to its communicative impact (and possible violence from reactions by listeners). You can also imagine the heckler’s voice at a private university. It would be based on the fear that the university might be attacked by the objectors. This would not be a violation of the First Amendment but it is inconsistent with academic freedom principles.

[2.]Heckler’s Veto could be also used to describe a direct form of suppression. Black’s Law Dictionary states that “A private individual who interrupts or disrupts the speech and aims to block it from being heard,” such as shouting at the speaker, making personal insults, and having loud side conversations.” (See, e.g., Harcz v. Boucher (W.D. Mich. 2021).)

A heckler’s veto is not an offense to the First Amendment because it’s only nongovernmental actions (e.g. speaking down to someone). Even though it may be limited to noise it could not be civilly actionable in most situations. Because interrupting speech itself is not a tort, Sometimes, though, it could be considered a crime and a violation of the peace. See here for further information.

And institutions, public and private—such as universities—may well set up their own rules, forbidding this second kind of heckler’s veto. These rules can be imposed in neutral ways and not violate the First Amendment. A speaker invited to speak cannot be interrupted. The same applies to partisans who are not allowed to interrupt the speaker on the other side.

It’s not surprising that this phrase has two similar meanings. This is true of many other words and phrases (both legal jargon and ordinary English). Each involves hecklers, and possibly others who are more aggressive than just heckling but also attempting to stop speakers speaking. While the latter is direct, it involves government officials stopping or intimidating the speaker. However, legal terms can make the meanings of these two words somewhat distinct.