Thursday, 17 October 2019

Free Speech Under Attack: "The Thug's Veto"

So "legal advice" about protestors threatening unspecified violence has managed to give Massey University  a "Health and Safety" reason to shut down a planned Feminism 2020 Conference at the University -- hosting which despite the threats against it had previously given some of us to describe the University using words like "courageous." Turns out we were wrong.  "Cancellation of the event," blathers the University statement on the cancellation, "is the only way to eliminate the risk to health and safety and to ensure that the university would not be in breach of its health and safety obligations." 

Commenters were quick to observe that you can mark this down as both the inevitable outcome of the failed Free Speech Coalition litigation against Auckland Council -- which has now cemented into legal precedent this Health and Safety excuse -- and another example of the Thug's Veto.

A timely moment then to post this brief excerpt from the just released book Free Speech Under Attack, from one my three chapters in the book, this one explaining the re-emergence of this phenomenon: 'The Thug's Veto' ...

The Thug's Veto

When we dehumanise and demonise our opponents, we abandon the possibility of peacefully resolving our differences, and seek to justify violence against them.
    ~ Nelson Mandela

Want to shut down your opposition without answering their ideas? Want to deplatform a speaker without letting them speak? Achieve your aim in two easy steps by exercising what’s become known as the Thug’s Veto. “A 'Thug's Veto' is when violent and/or threatening activists and/or protest groups … force the closurecancellation or disruption of an event that they don't agree with by means of intimidation or threats of violence and chaos.”[i]

We saw this in 2019 when threats by Peace Action Aotearoa prompted the cancellation of a speaking event by two controversial Canadians. These were not threats to take lightly: the ill-named group’s notoriety was earned by having placed a fake bomb in a crowded Wellington theatre, in order to have a film screening cancelled.

As a logical fallacy, the Thug’s Veto is the violent equivalent of ad hominem. It plays the man without the ball, leaving unanswered the ideas that speakers express, and their bones often battered and bruised.

The practice used to be called a ‘Heckler’s Veto.’[ii] Appropriate to our age, it has now been updated to be more violent.

It was first used in the modern form in 2001 after the pro-Palestinian professor, Dr Sami Al-Arian, appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News TV show. So incensed were viewers by what they heard that they send death threats to Al-Arian and protested at the University of Southern Florida, from which he was promptly sacked. The university argued “that Dr Al-Arian’s presence constituted an intolerable “disruption” to campus operations, making his termination necessary.”[iii] In response, Alan Charles Kors, editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), sent an open letter to the university arguing:

The University cannot and must not remove a professor because some portion of the public demands it on the basis of his purported political beliefs, his protected associations, and other wholly unproven suspicions. To do so would allow a “heckler’s veto” and would open the floodgates to arbitrarily firing all professors when some individuals, especially individuals willing to portray themselves as criminals, decide that they do not like the way that a professor talks, thinks, or appears. Indeed, it would create a new category, the “USF thug’s veto,” which actively encourages the threat of violence to accomplish the dismissal of professors disliked by any portion of the public. This is not only unconstitutional, but, indeed, endangers the core of freedom at any institution of higher learning and the very rule of civilised law itself….[iv]

That argument seems exactly right. “This is not about Sami Al-Arian or his political views,” Kors told the press. “This is about the devastation of free speech and academic freedom at USF and the destruction of constitutional protections at a public university.”

That devastation has continued, with protestors in recent times shutting down events from Arkansas to Auckland, and from Oxford to Oklahoma.

If the New Censors have their way, the Thug’s Veto may become the most widely accepted way to deplatform your opposition.[v]

. . . 

[To read on, order your copy of Free Speech Under Attack today!]

NOTES[i] ‘Thug’s Veto,’ Urban Dictionary
[ii] “The [US] Supreme Court first recognised the term in Brown v. Louisiana (1966), citing the work of First Amendment expert Harry Kalven Jr., who coined the phrase. The term is also used in general conversation to refer to any incident in which opponents block speech by direct action or by ‘shouting down’ a speaker through protest. Although some scholars refer to a string of heckler’s veto cases, the idea appears across a wide range of cases in First Amendment law as a label critical for any claim, made in defence of the government’s suppression, that speech inciting hostile reactions may be restrained.” Patrick Schmidt, ‘Heckler’s Veto,’ First Amendment Encyclopaedia.
[iii] ‘The University of South Florida Betrays the Rule of Law: The “Thug’s Veto” and the Ongoing Case of Sami Al-Arian,’ FIRE website, January 29, 2002
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Jonathan Haidt observes that there is also a parallel sort of ‘Victim’s Veto’ giving the easily offended power to silence speech. If “giving offence” is deemed off limits, then anyone claiming offence, especially on behalf of their group, is able to shut down any speaker they choose. This is creating am especially chilling effect on campuses, he says. To free up campus debate, he argues for a return to the common law notion of the “reasonable man” defence: i.e., if a “reasonable person” would not be offended by Statement ‘x,’ then Statement ‘x’ is okay.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. this 'Thug's veto' has been standard practice for colonisers and Empire builders since...forever.

    1. You don't really understand the concept, do you 'Blazer.'

    2. I'm reminded of a British Empire builder. Some Indian savage (the Subcontinent, not Americas) said that it was his culture to burn widows, and that that should be respected. The British empire builder agreed, but said (I'm paraphrasing) "It's my culture to shoot cowardly widow-burners. If you insist upon engaging in your cultural traditions, I will insist upon engaging upon mine."


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