Heading Off the Hostile Audience

Mark Edmundson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia. 

I’m pleased and grateful to have had the chance to read Frederick Schauer’s thoughts on the hostile audience issue. Although Professor Schauer and I are colleagues at the University of Virginia, we have not to my knowledge met. I’m in the English department, he in the law school, which means we’re separated by about a mile of terrain and whatever differences of assumption and approach our disciplines possess. I’m very happy to make his acquaintance, if only virtually: The clarity of mind and worthiness of purpose on display in his paper are praiseworthy indeed.

The legal questions that arise from the hostile audience issue are obviously complex, and it seems to me that the paper does an excellent job of delineating them. I read with fascination about the legal history of the issue and rapidly concurred with the author that some solution is needed. How much are states and municipalities supposed to spend on providing security for controversial speakers? At what point is enough expenditure truly enough? Public budgets are finite, and what’s given over to protect a provocative speaker may come out of worthy endeavors: education, public safety, assistance to the poor. If I understand it correctly, the implications of this paper tend toward the pragmatic: What is the best way to allocate existing resources to get the best results?

If you think, as I do, that free speech is one of our highest ideals, perhaps the highest ideal in a democracy, then the implications of a pragmatic approach chafe a bit. Democracy lives or dies, on this view, by virtue of its power to allow all sorts of speech and let its citizens sort the truth out for themselves. One can be—I am inclined to be—rather passionate about this. Every time someone’s legitimate right to free speech is undermined, the experiment that is democracy dies a little.

But there are those costs to consider, are there not?

I can contribute nothing of value on the legal question of the hostile audience. I’m void of qualifications. But I do think that in this case an issue that is being considered in legal terms might also be considered in other ways. The terms I’ll propose are radically unglamorous, but they may be effective.

I think that some resourceful use of technology and some resourceful policymaking might go a long way toward solving this problem, and saving some money to boot.

It may be that today’s counter-protesters are persuaded that they can act with impunity against speakers who are legally entitled to speak in a given venue. They can throw rocks and bottles; they can kick and punch. “It is impossible to completely discount the possibility,” Schauer observes, “that the actual or impending violence that creates the need for an expensive law enforcement presence is related to the fact that for many members of a hostile audience the initiation of physical contact, often by throwing various projectiles or wielding sticks and poles, seems to them to be a relatively risk-free act, legally if not physically.” We shouldn’t let initiating physical contact remain legally risk-free.

We might, for example, sow every rally and demonstration site with surveillance cameras. We should make it clear that after the events of the day, the film will be carefully and expertly reviewed and those who commit serious crimes will answer for them. We should make identification easier by prohibiting the wearing of masks at public demonstrations. Masks are already against the law in Virginia—although not in California and some other states. They should be. Word would get around very quickly among demonstrators and counter-demonstrators, including the Antifa, that there would be a price exacted for resorting to violence at a demonstration. Most Antifa, in my experience, are personally timid and are brave only in the group or under the mask. The prospect of jail time would probably deter most of them from the most extreme forms of hostility

We should be able to prepare for controversial rallies and speakers better than we do. Every state might have a task force of manageable size that is expert in keeping controversial rallies peaceful. These task forces should know the latest methods for controlling a counter-protesting crowd. How much space between rallygoers and protesters is best? What kind of barricades, if any, should be used? What venues are most conducive to relatively peaceful expression of ideas? When a controversial speaker is scheduled, these task forces should repair to the district in question and offer all the help they can. The police I saw in Charlottesville on August 12 seemed to have no clue about how to handle demonstrators. They needed some schooling and some support. With cameras and expert planning, cities could do more than they currently do, probably with the need of fewer resources.

As to the right to heckle a controversial speaker—that’s obviously a complex legal question and beyond an English professor’s remit. Aren’t those hecklers also exercising their right to free speech? But I think it a reasonable idea to check in with the most likely-to-be-offended groups and invite them to propose a speaker to respond to and if possible rebut the invitee. The price for that rebuttal ought to be enough silence on the part of the audience to allow the initial speaker to say his or her piece.

There’s another sort of response available when the hecklers not only scream and clap but also come with noise-makers and musical instruments that they intend to use in anything but a musical way. The last word will always belong to the biggest battalions, Napoleon said. In this case, the last word must belong to the one with the biggest sound system. As a former rock-and-roll stage hand (and security guy), I can tell you that rigging up a big sound system—more booming than anything a hall full of protesters can match—is not hard to do.

In his famous Albert Hall concert, Bob Dylan took a lot of heckling from crowd members who were enraged at him for breaking away from the folkie tradition and playing hard-core electric rock and roll. “Judas!” one guy cried. “I don’t believe you,” said Dylan. “You’re a liar.” Then as the band broke into “Like a Rolling Stone,” the future Nobel Laureate turned to the band and said, “Play fucking loud.”