The Founding Fathers didn’t specify whether or not a protester with a cowbell has a right to drown out the speech rights of others.
That’s at the center of a dispute at Portland State University in which police allowed “a heckler with a cowbell” and other demonstrators to “hijack” a College Republicans meeting.
The heckler banged the bell repeatedly during a presentation as four police officers stood by.
The university said in a statement the officer in charge made a decision based on his “professional judgment.”
“When an individual disrupted the event by ringing a cowbell, the officer used his professional judgment and determined not to threaten or restrain the individual so as not to escalate a potentially unsafe situation,” the statement said.
But the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education pointed out in a letter to the university that it was the second time this year the university failed to defend the expressive rights of students on campus.
Previously a meeting of the Portland State International Socialist Organization was ordered shut down because of concerns about protesters.
“The message is clear: If you disagree with a student group at Portland State, left or right, simply threaten to disrupt their meetings. The police will be standing by,” FIRE said in the letter to Rahmat Shoureshi, the university’s president.
“This is an unacceptable result at a public university dedicated to freedom of expression. We again call on Portland State University to transparently hold its law enforcement to account,” wrote Adam Steinbaugh, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program.
He contends the demonstrators violated the university’s own policies, which prohibit disruptive behavior.
The California Supreme Court has spoken directly to the issue, the letter said. The court has acknowledged that even a rude or poorly timed comment can add to a discussion.
“Nonetheless, the state retains a legitimate concern in ensuring that some individuals’ unruly assertion of their rights of free expression does not imperil other citizens’ rights of free association and discussion. Freedom of everyone to talk at once can destroy the right of anyone effectively to talk at all. Free expression can expire as tragically in the tumult of license as in the silence of censorship.”
See the disruption (warning: objectionable language):
“If one heckler with a cowbell is all it takes to silence expression at PSU, no one’s speech is protected,” said FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley.
“PSU must demonstrate that it takes its First Amendment obligations seriously and is willing to stand up for campus expression.”