Commentary by MTSU Professor: What is Free Speech and do Hecklers or Protestors Disrupt or Bar that Freedom?

Apr 14, 2023 at 07:36 am by WGNS News

Rutherford County, TN - Commentary: Free speech is often a topic of debate. But what is free speech and what is the difference between the freedom to speak freely without hecklers disrupting your free speech by overtalking, yelling or shouting? Are those hecklers limiting your freedom and vetoing your speech? Or, are the hecklers or protestors overpowering your freedom to speak freely? Or, are they just exercising their right? With more on this interesting subject, here is MTSU Professor of Journalism Larry Burriss…

Verbatim: A recent flurry of campus free speech incidents has highlighted the conflict between those who advocate different versions of what free speech means. On the one hand, are those who sponsor events addressing controversial issues in our society. On the other hand, are those who want to disrupt and censor such events by claiming their disturbances are also free speech and thus protected.
Unfortunately, a recent “New York Times” article says it is difficult to strike a balance between these competing interests. Actually, it's not difficult at all. When a group, any group, schedules space in a public facility the speaker should be able to present their views and ideas free from what is often termed the "heckler's veto." After all, suppressing speech does nothing to add to the debate, and free speech advocates as far back as John Stuart Mill said exploring wrong ideas can, in fact, help us discover the truth.
And for universities to condone such suppression is to go totally against the purpose of the university to begin with. Colleges and universities are supposed to be places where ideas, both popular and unpopular can be explored and debated.
Indeed, it is the unpopular ideas, the marginalized ideas, that need the most protecting. As the Supreme Court noted long ago, the majority doesn't need protecting. But unfortunately, it is often the minority the majority wants to suppress. And by the way, the same rules apply to state legislatures. But don't the hecklers also have the right to free speech? Absolutely, but not the right to disrupt the original speaker.
The hecklers can protest outside the hall, can hold up signs in the hall, and can ask questions or make comments once the main part of the program is completed. Actually, the rule is fairly simple. The hecklers simply need to ask themselves, would you want someone doing this to you while you're trying to talk?
The idea is not to suppress any speech, or censor any speaker. To do so is not freedom at all, but despotism as practiced by dictators since the dawn of time. - I'm Larry Burriss."

About Dr. Burriss - Larry Burriss, professor of journalism, teaches introductory and media law courses. At the graduate level he teaches quantitative research methods and media law. He holds degrees from The Ohio State University (B.A. in broadcast journalism, M.A. in journalism), the University of Oklahoma (M.A. in human relations), Ohio University (Ph.D. in journalism) and Concord Law School (J.D.). He has worked in print and broadcast news and public relations, and has published extensively in both academic and popular publications. He has won first place in the Tennessee Associated Press Radio Contest nine times. Dr. Burriss' publications and presentations include studies of presidential press conferences, NASA photography, radio news, legal issues related to adolescent use of social networking sites, legal research, and Middle Earth.

Dr. Burriss has served as director of the School of Journalism, dean of the College of Mass Communication and president of the MTSU Faculty Senate. He was appointed by Gov. Phil Bredesen to serve on the Tennessee Board of Regents. He was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force and served on active duty in Mali, Somalia, Bosnia, Central America, Europe and the Pentagon.

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