What is Freedom of Speech?
By David Henderson
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.