Is Heckling a Speaker a Crime?

By Daniel J. Klau


Short Answer: It depends (my favorite two words as a lawyer).

Fuller Answer: Isolated heckles by an individual are protected speech under the First Amendment. But an intentional and sustained effort to disrupt a lawful public assembly by heckling the speaker is unlawful in many states — and it should be.

Eugene Volokh, a leading First Amendment scholar, explains the law in this helpful article.

I raise this issue now in light of last night’s ugly violence at UConn, where an alt-right speaker named Lucian Wintrich was arrested for allegedly assaulting a student after she apparently grabbed materials from his podium. Before the assault, Wintrich’s speech had been repeatedly interrupted by students chanting statements like “Go home Nazi.” But two wrongs do not make a right. Wintrich did not have a right to respond to the heckling, or to the apparent seizure of materials from his podium, by assaulting a student.

Wintrich’s speech was provocatively entitled “It Is OK To Be White.” He was invited to speak on campus by the UConn College Republicans. Whatever one thinks of Wintrich’s views (I find them deeply disturbing), the student group had a right to invite Wintrich, and he had a constitutional right to speak on campus, and to do so free of constant interruption. College campuses should not be “safe spaces” where the only speakers who are welcome are those whose viewpoints are agreeable to a majority of students on campus.

Daniel J. Klau is president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information and a member of NEFAC’s Board of Directors. This post originally appeared on Klau’s blog, CT Good Governance.

Above image used with permission of Kevin Galliford of WFSB-Hartford.

NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.

Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation here.

Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include the Barr Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, Lois Howe McClure, The Boston Globe and Boston University. Celebration Supporters include The Hartford Courant and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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