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Jewish World Review July 2, 2002 /22 Tamuz, 5762

Nat Hentoff

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Free speech: A Fourth of July tribute


http://www.NewsandOpinion.com | At times, readers correct me. At other times, I return the favor -- especially when constitutional rights are in question. Because of poor schooling in these foundations of our freedom, many Americans are not as fully informed on the Bill of Rights, for example, as they ought to be, even on the Fourth of July.

Bob Roenigk, a reader from Needville, Texas, takes me to task for a column I wrote about Janis Heaphy, publisher of the Sacramento Bee, who was booed off the stage before she could finish her commencement address at California State University. The hecklers in the audience objected to her concerns about whether John Ashcroft -- in enforcing our need for security against terrorism -- was adhering to the American values of due process (fairness) with regard to racial profiling and allowing government agents to listen in on conversations between detainees and their lawyers.

Mr. Roenigk writes "our First Amendment is clear that 'Congress shall pass no law ... abridging the freedom of speech.' Congress did not intervene in preventing Ms. Heaphy from finishing her speech. The audience did that. Our founding fathers did not include a provision mandating that citizens must listen to what someone else is saying."

In historical fact, however, since the ratification of the 14th Amendment (1868), the scope and power of the First Amendment have been greatly expanded to include the free-speech protections of individual Americans from all government entities: federal (the Congress and other branches of the national government), state and local. For example, if at a public college, a student or professor charges that the administration has abused his or her First Amendment rights of speech or press, an action or redress can be filed in court.

The 14th Amendment states: "Nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." That includes the Bill of Rights.

It took the Supreme Court many years to rule that because the 14th Amendment, and all Bill of Rights' amendments, extend, as Justice Hugo Black said, "to all people of the nation." But still, in the April 19 Washington Times, a letter writer believes that "only the federal government is restricted by the First Amendment."

The persistence of Justice Black finally persuaded the court to also incorporate the right to a public trial; protection from unreasonable searches and seizures; the right to counsel; the right against self-recrimination; the right to an impartial jury; and the right against being placed in double jeopardy. These are no longer applied only to the federal government. We are protected from all such abuses by all levels of government.

As for what happened to the speaker at California State University -- a public institution of learning -- I refer to the column I wrote that was criticized by the reader from Texas:

"Heckling is protected speech" under the First Amendment. But heckling is no longer protected free speech if "the speaker cannot continue. That, in law, is called 'the heckler's veto.'"

Once it became clear that Janis Heaphy was not going to be heard above the boos and jeers of the audience, the president of the university -- who was on the stage -- should have firmly informed the audience that the speaker's First Amendment rights trumped their First Amendment rights when they make it impossible for her to finish her speech. Moreover, the university president would have been within his rights to have campus police escort the hecklers out of the auditorium.

What the members of that audience were demonstrating is an all too common affliction among out-of-control hecklers across the political spectrum. As George Orwell wrote: "At any given moment, there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question."

If a speaker questions righteous orthodoxy, as I, a pro-lifer, have before some college audiences, the "right thinkers" in the audience sometimes try to drown me out. Since I can out-shout them when I have to, they have yet to succeed.

What this all comes down to, as Orwell made clear, is that "if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear." In this regard, a number of college administrators within this country have brought discredit to their institutions by not protecting California Board of Regents Ward Connerly's right to finish his criticisms of affirmative action before he was shouted down.

Free speech -- even in criticism of John Ashcroft and the new FBI's spying powers on Americans at large -- means the right to be heard.

It's as basic as that.


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JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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