Assault a speaker with a pie, get away scot free?

A popular viral video making the rounds on the internet shows New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman getting hit with a pie as he begins a speech at Brown University. The Brown Daily Herald reported yesterday that one of the students was taken into custody (but then released) by Brown police, while the second, who calls himself “Captain Custard” and may not have been a Brown student, remains unidentified. (So far, it seems that criminal charges will not be filed, though the identified student, Margaree Little ’08.5, has been referred to the Office of Student Life for disciplinary proceedings.)

The Herald also reported that someone affiliated with the “protest” against Friedman explained to them that “it’s not just Thomas Friedman. It’s what he stands for and what he promotes. It’s a pie in the face of corporate environmentalism and capitalism.”

The First Amendment protects speech – what Friedman was about to engage in when he was attacked – and also protects protesters’ countervailing right to speech, as long as their protest speech is not sufficiently loud or disruptive so as to interfere with the speaker’s ability to continue – the “heckler’s veto.” However, the First Amendment does not protect assault and battery against a speaker, which is what the students’ pie-throwing incident likely would constitute under the law were Friedman to press charges, or were local prosecutors inclined to proceed even against Friedman’s wishes. In addition to the violation of a criminal law, the students’ protest “action” runs contrary to most universities’ – including Brown’s – professed adherence to free speech and academic freedom principles. While it’s unclear what will happen to Little, Brown’s history is instructive, since not every incident of disruption or unlawful interference with free speech has been punished by campus authorities. (In these cases, you’ll often find that the administrators share the political views of the protesters, so their lack of action is a silent ratification of the protesters’ speech.) Several years ago, on campuses across the country – including Brown – students destroyed or stole press runs of student newspapers that contained a politically-incendiary advertisement placed by David Horowitz opposing reparations for slavery. Even though those actions constituted both theft as well as suppression of the newspaper’s free speech rights, few of those incidents resulted in punishment.

Then again, Friedman went on to finish his speech, so it’s not quite the same as these more successful heckler’s vetoes. But censorship of unpopular (to campus radicals) views is not acceptable, so we have to wait and wonder whether Brown will do anything to punish Little. (Of course, we may never hear anything, because so many campus disciplinary proceedings are held in complete secrecy. But that’s a separate issue.) They might do nothing. What is astonishing, and dis-spiriting, to advocates of free speech and academic freedom on our campuses of higher education, is that so many college administrators would not hesitate to publicly penalize a student newspaper or magazine and its staff writers for publishing a mere parody seen as offensive to some social group, but might hesitate to punish a student who engages in assault and battery in order to attack opinions deemed “regressive.” The double-standard that would occur were they to not punish Little would be breath-taking, particularly in an academic community supposedly devoted to the most heightened notions of free speech.

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