The key point is to balance the rights of the protesters with the rights of the speaker and the audience. Protesters have a right to make their views known, but they must not infringe the rights of the speaker and the audiences. So the following questions are relevant:
1) Were the protesteros actually disrupting others' views?
2) If so, HOW LONG did they obstruct the view? A symbolic gesture to turn the back that prevented people in the audience from seeing the speaker is fine, so long as the act is short and does not block views for a meaningful period of time (a couple of minutes, max, it would seem to me);
3) how did the police react? Did they make an attempt to talk with the protesters, and did the protesters make any attempt to make it clear that they were not trying to disrupt the audience's view? This is a factual call about which we lack evidence;
4) how have similar speech actions been treated by authorities in the past? This is Ann's key question. Ann's question has validity because in my entire time at Madison, I have never witnessed a conservative group attempting to disrupt a speaker, only leftist groups opposed to the speaker. In no case has the leftist group ever been punished or even spoken to by the administration. In some cases, it was evident who was doing the disruption, as in the Ward Connerly disruption in 1998. But we still need to know the facts in the case at hand. What we want in these encounters is even-handedness (viewpoint neutrality) on the part of authorities, plain and simple.
October 29, 2006
On Friday, I wrote about the UW-Oshkosh police throwing students out of a lecture for standing and turning their backs to a speaker -- who happened to be UW's own 9/11 conspiracy theorist, Kevin Barrett. I also raised this question with the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights, and UW polisci prof Donald Downs -- president of the group -- wrote this (and wanted me to copy it here):