Will You Use Your Veto?

David Motes, Sponsor


High schools have two missions that often conflict: to prepare students to be good citizens, and to preserve order. When opinions get spicy, those missions get tricky.
The landmark student speech Supreme Court case Tinker vs. Des Moines set the rule on censorship: if it’s disruptive, schools can censor it.
Disruption isn’t personal; it’s general, and it’s measurable. Common sense says, and the courts have agreed, that disruptive isn’t the same as annoying. Where that limit is set is a tough problem, and I’m glad I’m not the one to solve it. But one thing is sure: other people in your community are occasionally going to offend you with their opinions. If you are in a public high school, the Constitution assumes you can take it, at least to a point. I agree.
Censorship occurs when a representative of the State prevents or punishes free expression. Tinker lets school staff—representatives of the state—censor speech that is disruptive. But the majority of censorship in a high school is not censorship, because the staff isn’t doing it—you are. The primary barrier to free expression isn’t “The Man,”. It’s “The Us,”.
All three t-shirts on this page were worn to an American high school in the past few years (not Wayzata). None were censored by school staff—wise I think, because these shirts would probably have prevailed in court under Tinker. It is safe to assume that the students who wore the shirts were subjected to considerable flak from their peers. They intended to provoke discussion, and I would guess they got it. I write here today to say that is good. Those shirts should not be silenced even though they probably annoyed a lot of people. Justice Louis Brandeis famously described the remedy for annoying speech: “more speech, not enforced silence.”
I hope those students who were annoyed by the t-shirts also their say, in a civil way. If they did, all would have benefited–perhaps more than in any class.
A heckler disrupts the speech of others. If that disruption is allowed to stand, the heckler gains a veto over the other person’s speech. That is the Heckler’s Veto.
But civil expression of disagreement is not heckling.
The Heckler’s Veto degrades your freedom of expression whether you are the Veto-er or the Veto-ee or just a bystander. Trust me–you are going to want that freedom of expression someday. I am advising you to be on the lookout for the Heckler’s Veto in action here at WHS, and to do your best to override it.
The way you do that is to remember that a civil exchange of ideas is not only good for the mind, but it is protected and even encouraged by the Bill of Rights. A healthy respect for people who disagree with you will enrich the power and value of your own positions. Heckling another person into silence will accomplish nothing but creating that enforced silence that Brandeis worried about.