David R. Henderson  

What is Freedom of Speech?

The Expert-Hubris Industries... Collective Bargaining "Rights"...

Mea Culpa

In a post on Friday, I claimed, with the headline, that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while criticizing other governments for attacking freedom of speech, went on with her speech even while "goons" (my word) in the auditorium roughed up a man who was silently protesting. One of the first commenters, "rapscallion," protested that I didn't have enough information to make a judgment and I came on as a commenter and agreed with him.

But this is my reply to Bob Murphy (and, somewhat, to Daniel Kuehn). Bob argued that when someone speaks on private property and some other person in the audience protests, even silently, hauling him away does not necessarily violate his right to freedom of speech. I agree with Bob Murphy. My first post was written from the heart and I failed to follow the advice of Sean Connery's character in "Finding Forrester," which is to rewrite from the head.

George Washington University, where Ms. Clinton spoke, is a private educational institution. It has the right to set its own ground rules. When mucky-mucks come to speak, as commenter "Tomato Addict" pointed out, there are often special rules announced in advance and so everyone in the room who doesn't leave when the rules are announced is presumed to be obligated to follow them. I don't know what the rules were. That's important to know.

Let's say the rules were not announced in advance. One understood rule is that you don't shout out to interrupt a speaker. So it's legitimate for private security guards, defending private property, to haul away someone who shouts out. Ray McGovern didn't appear to have shouted anything until he was being hauled away.

What about visible silent protests? The guards, assuming they were GWU employees, then have a tougher situation. They would have been wrong had they, on that basis alone, physically hauled the guy off. If the ground rules have not been announced in advance, then, as long as he was not obstructing anyone's view, common understanding would say that he should not be physically attacked. But what if the guards approached him and asked him to sit. Then they have defined the rules. If he goes on to break the rules, then physically hauling him off is legitimate.

So the reality is, as I admitted to "rapscallion," that we don't know enough.

One other thing: Bob Murphy's comment has persuaded me that this isn't a free-speech issue. It's simply a private property issue. What do private property rights allow me to do? Let's say you welcome me into your house and you have not laid out any ground rules for my behavior. (This is the norm, by the way. Sometimes people will ask me to take off my shoes, but it's hard to think of a past incident where someone laid out a stronger restriction on my behavior.) Then I start turning my back on guests. You have the right to kick me out but not to physically assault me. If I leave, end of story. But let's say I refuse. Then you have the right to use minimal force to get me to leave. Let's say minimal force doesn't work because I resist physically. Then you up the ante. The point is that whether physical force can be justified and how much of it is justified depends on the circumstances. If it's not justified, then your using it is a physical assault. But it's not an attack on my freedom of speech.

There are clear cases where U.S. government officials crack down on freedom of speech. The Federal Communications Commission does it regularly. This isn't one of them.

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: Property Rights

COMMENTS (17 to date)
OneEyedMan writes:

I once saw former Governor Tom Ridge give a commencement address that was briefly interrupted by protesters running through with a sign and cheering that ended. They left of their own volition. Ridge paused his speech and said what a great country we lived in that free speech and protest were protected. He got a big laugh and move on with his speach. I thought that showed leadership and character and I liked him for handling it that way.

Even if Clinton and George Washington didn't have to have to handle it the way that Tom Ridge did, I'd like them to have.

David R. Henderson writes:

Oneeyed man,
Good story.

John Hall writes:

I think you and Murphy are mistaken. The fact that they have the right to have him removed from the property is obvious, yet irrelevant.

This isn't about legal authority. It's about values. For instance, a society can have libertarian-influenced laws protecting the freedom of speech on one's property, but the government may still not value open and honest criticism (and subsequently be unresponsive to criticism).

For instance, a libertarian might say the white operators of Woolworth's lunch counter would be justified in using force to kick out a black guy protesting in 1960s Montgomery. However, just b/c the libertarian believes the man can justifiably use force to kick out the protester doesn't mean that the libertarian can't also believe that the man was wrong to kick him out and that the protester wasn't doing something admirable.

The problem is that Hillary is a hypocrite. Giving a speech in favor of the value of open criticism of government while kicking protesters out of her speeches and trying to shut down wikileaks.

I really don't like that you stepped away from that post.

Kevin Dick writes:

I'm not so sure this isn't a free speech issue. Public officials purposely blur the line between their public responsibilities and private behavior, to their benefit.

Moreover, the government itself blurs this distinction when it becomes intimately involved with private educational institutions through financial grants with conditions of policy compliance attached.

So I think one of the most powerful public officals speaking at an educational institution that receives substantial federal money is a little different than a businessman speaking at a conference.

This is a special case. We're talking about a government official giving a speech on free speech. You'd think they'd be a little bit more sensitive about the notion of free speech, regardless of who owns what property.

It's as if I were to give a lecture on free speech in my house, and invite everyone I knew. Somebody disagrees with me and raises a point. I have a goon shut him up quickly and drag him out of my house. Sure, it might be within my right to do so, but you can still criticize me for being a hypocrite.

David R. Henderson writes:

@John Hall,
I agree with you about values. Notice that I didn't back down on that point. I'm saying that I was mistaken in saying it was about freedom of speech.
@Kevin Dick,
I agree that the line is blurry. That's the contradiction that comes with government subsidies. I am a government employee who teaches at a government university. If one of my students turned his back on me for the lecture, I would do what I could to get him removed if I couldn't get him to stop. Maybe I don't have that right, though, but I don't know a good solution.
@Jonathan M.F. Catalan,
I would criticize you in your hypothetical case, but not for being a hypocrite. Instead it would be for being a jerk. The hypocrisy charge would stick if you were using your freedom of speech to give a talk about being open to other opinions. But it's not hypocritical to favor freedom of speech and not to want others to disagree on your property.

Daublin writes:

What John Hall said. Why is everyone talking about legal issues? Whatever legal rights she has, she most certainly had the legal right to stop those guards. She declined. She decided that she'd rather be a thug.

Daniel Shapiro writes:

David, I think the issue with GWU is more complicated. Most private schools have policies in the catalogues and elsewhere promising academic freedom and a vigorous committment to freedom of speech. This would seem to entail allowing protests at events. I'd be very surprised if GWU didn't have such a policy. If so, then what they did contradicts their policy. One also has to wonder if they would have done the same thing if, for example, there were protests by students against, say some controversial 'right wing' speaker.

Max writes:

I sort of agree with John Hall. Ultimately, of course, you (revised) and Bob Murphy are correct: this is a property rights issue when it comes right down to it.

But there is a Millian (as in John Stuart) sense of free speech that is not really respected on many college campuses these days (public or private) -- for example, when activists shut down Tom Tancredo's talk at Chapel Hill (with boos and attempted violence).

I have no idea what happened in the Hilary Clinton instance, but generally it is important to distinguish between the spirit of free speech and the rules of free speech in public and private spaces.

You have a "property right" of sorts to delete this post, for example. But it's in the Millian sense of toleration that you might leave it for all to see -- say, to offer a variety of perspectives.

gabriel rossman writes:

You're emphasizing the phrase "private property" and I'm wondering whether it's really private ownership per se or merely that a place that is not a traditional public forum and the use of which is adjudicated by legitimate authority? Another way to put the question is, do you see any difference between the case you described and the Irvine case [see, http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-0205-uci-protesters-20110205,0,43701.story] which has a similar pattern of facts but involves a state school (and slightly more disruptive heckling)?

[fwiw, i myself see the appropriate balance as allowing noisy protestors immediately outside a venue and non-disruptive protestors inside a venue, even if the venue is public property]

Kenton A Hoover writes:

Forgive the snark, but I think the Emir of Bahrain is making the same argument -- you can't speak your mind because he owns the place.

And I think when you make your private property accessible to the public to watch a live policy address by a public figure, you are in fact accepting that you cannot entirely control the course of peoples feedback -- theater owners should not be allowed to use police powers to require applause in their venues.

John Goodman writes:

Spare me. You think the outcome would have been different if Hillary were speaking at a public university? Do you really think anyone on Hillary's staff cares whether the campus is public or private? Or what rules were announced in advance?

I think your first post captured the spirit of what is going on.

David R. Henderson writes:

John Goodman asks:
You think the outcome would have been different if Hillary were speaking at a public university? Do you really think anyone on Hillary's staff cares whether the campus is public or private? Or what rules were announced in advance?
No, I don't. But what I think and what I can prove are two different things. And remember that I didn't back down on what I think of Hillary Clinton: all I backed down on is whether I can say this is a matter of freedom of speech.

I think your first post captured the spirit of what is going on.

Thanks, John. I agree. But I was making a claim beyond the spirit, and that was a bridge too far.

David R. Henderson writes:

@gabriel rossman,
I see a huge difference. One is a silent protest and one of the key issues is whether he got in anyone's way, in which case the appropriate response is to ask him to move. The other is a case where clearly the students should have been hauled out immediately. I'm assuming, of course, that government property is legitimate. As I mentioned, that's a tough one. But given that we have government property, I think the best way to deal with it is to enforce rules against shouting speakers down.

Kevin Dick writes:

David. Your hypothetical on what you would do if a student protested your class is interesting for three reasons:

(1) Clinton's power to wield the machinery of the state is several order of magnitudes greater than yours so she should probably be more sensitive to people protesting that power.

(2) Your class is a routine event without any direct ties to federal policy making. Moreover, the other students are not in your class to learn you views as a policy maker on what policy you will make.

(3) If the topic of the class were free speech itself, would you really have a student removed for silently protesting?

Joe Cushing writes:

It ceased to be a private property issue once the guy was kicked off the property. Normally when you don't follow the rules of a private property owner, all they do is take you to the property line or maybe just outside the building and close the door. What kind of issue was it when he was taken to jail? Also, the police are not private security guards. Was it the police who decided to take him away or was it the private university who decided?

Ryan writes:

Free speech issue or not. The irony is overflowing. It's now been 7 days since this story hit the nets. Why hasn't the mainstream media picked this up yet?

Is the matriarch of the liberal/progressive caucus really that off limits?

I mean, this story has all the trimmings for a great 72 hour news story: relevance, irony, violence, and the cherry -- YouTube footage.

Liberal-media-bias my rear.

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