You may have noticed that the brave Resistance has begun to dominate town hall meetings held by Republicans, in order to create “news” for the MSM to then report.
Marco Rubio has certainly noticed:
“They are not town halls anymore,” the Florida Republican told CBS4-Miami’s Jim DeFede on Sunday. “What these groups really want is for me to schedule a public forum, they then organize three, four, five, six hundred liberal activists in the two counties or wherever I am in the state.”
Citing protesting tips published by the new Indivisible movement, Rubio told the station that activists are instructed to go to town halls early and “take up all the front seats. They spread themselves out. They ask questions. They all cheer when the questions are asked. They are instructed to boo no matter what answer I give. They are instructed to interrupt me if I go too long and start chanting things. Then, at the end, they are also told not to give up their microphone when they ask questions. It’s all in writing in this Indivisible document.”…
Asked whether he thinks today’s town hall crowds do not consist of “real people,” Rubio was quick to dispel the notion.
“These are real people. They are real liberal activists, and I respect their right to do it. But it is not a productive exercise,” Rubio replied in the interview. “It’s all designed to have news coverage at night — look at all these angry people screaming at your senator.”
The article then goes on to explain that in 2009, “when [Rubio] ran against Gov. Charlie Crist for Senate. Back then, Democrats were complaining that the forums were being hijacked by conservative activists.”
I don’t know whether that’s a false equivalence or a true equivalence. In other words, I’ve been to quite a few public political meetings of the question-and-answer type, and there are always people from the other side—political activists—insistently asking questions. That happens on right and left, and politicians expected it. If that’s what was happening in 2009, no biggee.
But was it? I wasn’t following the 2009 Florida race that closely, so I don’t know. But I tend to think the situation was nothing like what’s going on today, when hundreds of leftist activists show up to hijack the proceedings by much more extreme disruption. That’s a lot different than a small number of activists asking a few questions that are hostile, or even some jeers.
What is the remedy? It’s a true dilemma. We want to have free assembly, free speech, dissent. But this is disruption of that give-and-take in the name of free speech. Why should a senator or any other public office holder hold a forum that doesn’t give him a chance to answer questions and merely affords a large group of activists a platform from which to heckle and stifle him? Is the remedy to hold the forum anyway? Chris Christie seems to think so:
“Welcome to the real world of responsibility,” he said to Republicans who don’t want to hold town halls. Christie said he himself had held more than 160 town halls during his two terms.
Christie was famously pugnacious during his town halls, but I wonder when the last one was held (couldn’t find that information when I briefly Googled it just now). Has he ever faced this particular type of protest? I watched some of his town halls on video when he was a rising Republican star, and I know he faced a lot of hostility particularly from teacher’s unions, but it seems to me that that was different in scope and kind than what’s been happening now. But I’m not sure.
When does free speech become the stifling of speech you don’t like? Is yelling and heckling in order to disrupt a public meeting protected speech, and when does it cease being protected speech? Here’s an article by Jonathan Levin on that very subject, published about a year ago at Legal Insurrection:
First, although there is some First Amendment protection for “speech” in the form of physical action, it is inapplicable for this conversation. Storming the stage is not protected speech; it is likely assault. If a protester crosses the line and lays hands on a candidate or somebody attending an event, that would be battery, at a minimum.
Second, the First Amendment does not grant an absolute right to speak or protest. There are a variety of limitations depending on the context. It is ironclad law that reasonable “time, place and manner” limitations on speech are permitted under the Constitution.
Levin cites a piece by Eugene Volokh on the subject, in which Volokh writes:
Many states outlaw “disturbing lawful assemblies,” which would include campaign rallies, whether on public property or private. . .
Attempts to shut down an event, for instance by shouting down a speaker, blowing whistles so that the speaker can’t be heard, rushing onto the stage and the like would thus be illegal. This is important both because the police can then arrest the disrupters, and because security guards and ordinary rally attendees could then legally use reasonable, non-deadly force to stop the disruption.
Levin further explains:
The “substantially impaired” piece means that it has to be more than a passing interference. Blowing an air-horn in a conference hall during a speech would interfere, certainly, but blowing it once then stopping probably would not be “substantial” enough to warrant arrest; blowing it continuously and drowning out the speaker probably would be. The interruption also has to be more than what everybody knows is acceptable. Booing a candidate no matter how vigorously will probably not support a conviction, because it is within the realm of normal responses at a campaign event.
I suggest you read both the Levin article and the Volokh article. It’s not an easy question with easy answers, and it’s a topic that will come up more and more often during the Trump presidency. At the extremes—a few boos, versus rushing the stage or podium—the answers are easy. It’s that vast middle ground that present the biggest problem.
Levin had this to say about the situation that had just occurred when he was writing the piece a year ago, when protestors ended up causing Trump to cancel a speech:
The problem, of course, is that Trump didn’t get to speak, and the audience didn’t get to hear him. This is known as the “Heckler’s Veto.” Protesters are so unruly and the situation so out of control that event organizers or police deem it too dangerous to proceed and shut it down. The protesters thereby obtain a de facto veto over speech they dislike.
That is exactly the problem with canceling the town halls.
This sort of self-censorship raises its own issues. In giving up the podium, organizers signal protesters that they will cancel again if the atmosphere is adequately dangerous, creating an incentive for protesters to be ever more extreme. If the campaign then resists the next time, it becomes a game of chicken with protesters growing more volatile and organizers refusing to cave.
There is no great answer. Ideally, of course, we would conduct ourselves as members of a democracy and protest rather than intimidate, threaten or riot. More realistically, campaigns and police need to be vigilant for signs of concerted plans to disrupt events and who might participate, and to be prepared to quickly prevent that from happening. There is no constitutional right to attend a rally, and to the extent there is indication that somebody intends to disrupt an event, that person need not be allowed in.
This can easily escalate. In a sense, the protestors/agitators are in a win/win/win situation. They either force the person to stop having meetings (the Rubio solution), or they are allowed to stay and disrupt the meeting as well as getting themselves in the news and embarrassing the Republicans who held the meetings, or they are made into martyrs and seeming champions of free speech by being escorted out by police and perhaps even arrested. All three outcomes encourage more of their behavior.