How Free is Free Speech?

Last Friday afternoon, I went to a public talk by CIA Director John Brennan at the Penn Museum. To be honest, I expected his talk to be somewhat unsubstantive given Brennan’s position. There are many aspects of his job that he cannot talk about publicly, and the Fels Institute hand-picked the Q&A questions in advance.

Nonetheless, whatever measures the organizers took to control the conversation failed spectacularly. The event was interrupted three separate times by protesters affiliated with Penn Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In roughly ten minute intervals, the protesters jumped out of their seats and began shouting things like “Drones kill kids!” and “No Justice, no Peace! US out of the Middle East!”

During the third disruption a man and a woman started bellowing “The CIA is a terrorist group! Human torture is a crime!” Organizers pleaded with the protesters to follow security out of the hall, but they made clear that they had no intention of going. At various points the crowd countered by booing, chanting “USA! USA!”, and giving the Director a standing ovation.

This continued for over eight minutes. Finally, exasperated moderator Marjorie Margolies asked the crowd to give Director Brennan one more standing ovation and ended the event. Then as the crowd was filing out the female protester continued to yell, and got into a spat with an elderly woman. The protester called the woman “a f—ing whore”, and we all gasped when she responded by striking the protester with her cane. Afterwards, SDS members and supporters held a small rally outside of the Penn Museum and handed flyers to attendees.

Regardless of whether you sympathize with SDS’s grievances, it is unfortunate when a talk by a public figure descends into violence. I’m not going to go into the substance of what Brennan said (I’ll save that for another post), but I want to explore some of the questions this event raised about free speech.

At first, I was surprised the organizers did not have better strategies for dealing with these disruptions. The CIA has been at the center of several substantial controversies in recent years- it’s not like this kind of thing could not be anticipated. But the more I thought about this, the more I realized that any other conceivable option would have required the use of stronger force against the protesters.

So I took a look at the Pennsylvania disorderly conduct statute, which states that someone is guilty of disorderly conduct if “he engages in fighting or threatening, or in violent or tumultuous behavior; makes unreasonable noise; or uses obscene language… with intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm.” I’m no law professor, but I think this statue would have given security legal grounds to arrest (or at the very least forcibly remove) those who disrupted the event. Yet they didn’t. Security surrounded each group of protesters and nudged them towards the door, but that’s about it.

Perhaps Penn decided that the standard of free speech should be higher on a college campus, or perhaps the CIA did not want press about peaceful protesters being arrested at an event with the Director. Whatever the reason, it seems that event staff made a conscious decision to hold themselves to an exceptionally high standard of restraint to the point that they shut down the event instead of forcibly removing those who disrupted it.

While the event organizers were overly sensitive with regards to free speech, the protesters themselves were not. The DP reported one SDS member saying “I don’t think there’s any reason to allow speech that supports apartheid, that supports literal genocide.” While Brennan did not say anything that could be reasonably construed as supporting apartheid or genocide, that’s not the point. Purporting the idea that free speech should be selectively applied on some vague moral basis shows that SDS members don’t understand very principle that they unfairly exploited.

To be fair, there was something democratic about how the whole thing transpired. There are not many other countries in the world where a small group of protesters can get the ear of the director of the intelligence agency, let alone shut him up for over eight minutes, without facing any repercussions. They succeeded in making a political statement challenging Brennan’s policies when he was supposed to have a soapbox to defend them.

This, however, does not trump the fact that these protesters actively suppressed the speech of other audience members and of Director Brennan himself. I have no problem with protest in principle- it is an integral part of America’s historical narrative. It was completely appropriate to protest outside the event, and there is certainly a level of protest (including holding up signs and yelling briefly) that would have been allowable in the auditorium. But SDS didn’t just protest. They shut the event down, and that is beyond what is protected under the law.

I guess perhaps this is the price we pay for living in a society that places such a high value on free speech. In this particular case, I think the protesters and the event organizers all held their values a little too dearly. Free speech isn’t unlimited, and these protesters clearly overstepped the boundaries of constitutionally-protected speech.