Decision 2012: To Heckle or Not To Heckle

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Can we at least agree to let each other speak? Apparently not.

The two candidates running for office have taken different approaches to the heckle question. The Obama campaign does not heckle, at least in ways that are officially sanctioned. Some evidently unsanctioned supporters of the President do heckle Mitt Romney regularly, but the campaign officially condemns those efforts. Over the weekend, David Axelrod tweeted these words: “I strongly condemn heckling along Mitt’s route. Shouting folks down is their tactic, not ours. Let voters hear BOTH candidates & decide.” On Tuesday, campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said, via a statement, “We have sent a strong message to our supporters that this campaign should be an open exchange of ideas, not one where we drown out the other side by heckling and crashing events.”

The Romney campaign is so incensed by the unofficial anti-Romney hecklers that they have decided to endorse the act of heckling as a sanctioned campaign strategy. A few weeks back, staff and interns from the Romney campaign in Boston shouted over a press conference by Axelrod in Boston and then bragged about their accomplishment. One aide, Eric Fehrnstrom, gleefully called it the “Boston Massacre,” and Romney expressed pride in his team’s work.

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On Tuesday, Romney continued down this same path, saying his campaign team “do not believe in unilateral disarmament.”

This statement is problematic, since the Romney campaign is the only campaign that currently supports heckling. Romney said he would love to see “bilateral disarmament,” suggesting the Obama campaign must first find a way to stop people unaffiliated with the campaign from heckling at his events. Romney also restated his support for the heckle as an all-American tradition. “I know America has a long tradition of heckling and free speech,” he said.

There is a difference between those two things. The idea behind the freedom of speech is that a nation is best served by a free exchange of words, or as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously put it in 1916, “the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas.” This is why we do not generally prevent each other from publishing ideas, or peacefully demonstrating in public. The idea behind heckling is to prevent the speech of another. It is an antidote to free speech, and the stock and trade of the schoolyard bully.

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In 1965, Justice William Brennan explained the dilemma in a case called Lamont v. Postmaster General that concerned the rights of people to send unpopular opinions through the U.S. Postal Service:

I think the right to receive publications is such a fundamental right. The dissemination of ideas can accomplish nothing if otherwise willing addressees are not free to receive and consider them. It would be a barren marketplace of ideas that had only sellers and no buyers.

Republicans I speak with, including those in the Romney campaign, say such arguments miss the point. They believe that the Obama campaign is waging such a viciously negative campaign–and the Obama campaign is waging a viciously negative campaign. So, they argue, it is besides the point to focus on such niceties as permitting public expressions by Obama supporters. Republicans also say it is absurd to distinguish between the heckling of Obama supporters (who are condemned by the campaign they support) and the heckling of Romney campaign interns and staff (who are praised by the campaign they support).

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It is one thing for a group of Code Pink protesters to show up at a Congressional hearing about the Iraq War to heckle a Senator to prevent him, at least temporarily, from speaking. This is a particularly disrespectful form of protest, but it is disrespect undertaken by protesters who do not otherwise have plentiful avenues for broadcasting their views, or an official role in facilitating that debate. It would be something else entirely if the elected players in the Democratic process–Senators, Congressmen, presidential candidates–adopted the tactics of Code Pink. The day Senators or Congressman attempt to deprive each other the privilege of speaking in a hearing room, and then boast about it afterward, will be a sad day for democracy.

Something similar can be said for what has been happening on the campaign trail. Romney has used his pro-heckler position to show his toughness and rally his troops. And to his credit he did signal that it would “be a nice thing” if he both sides found a way to let each other speak without disruption. But he has yet to ask those who heckle on his behalf to stop. If the pose continues, I fear there will be a cost, not just for him as a leader, but for the country he intends to lead.

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