Newspaper article The Tuscaloosa News

GUEST COLUMNIST: Heckling Is a Revered American Pastime

Newspaper article The Tuscaloosa News

GUEST COLUMNIST: Heckling Is a Revered American Pastime

Article excerpt

While interrupting a speaker or a group of speakers in public forums is certainly rude, such an action, by itself, does not meet the threshold of what the founders of the United States considered to be an abridgment of freedom of speech.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is very clear on this point: "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech."

The free speech clause is aimed at the government restricting a person's ability to speak freely, not a citizen or a group of citizens exercising their right to publicly voice their disagreement with someone speaking in public.

While such disruptors might run afoul of the rules of decorum set by the organizers of public events and find themselves ejected from the premises, the act of a private person calling a speaker out on his or her views is not a violation of the First Amendment right of free speech.

America's "rough and tumble" public discourse in the political arena is derived from the customs of our former British colonial masters. One example in Britain of the public's right to publicly challenge a public speaker is London's hallowed "Speaker's Corner" in Hyde Park.

This open-air forum for debate has long been protected under English case law, which has determined that any speech is permitted from the speaker as well as the audience, even that which may be deemed "irritating, contentious, eccentric, heretical, unwelcome and provocative."

Although it was originally prohibited by English law, blasphemy and insulting the British monarch is now permissible in Speaker's Corner.

The same tradition also applies in the British House of Commons, where even the British prime minister is often subjected to jeering and howls of disapproval by members of the opposition parties and sometimes even from the prime minister's own backbenchers.

Only the speaker of the House of Commons is entitled to make those roaring their disapproval during the ministers' "question time" to be brought back to "order. …

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