We know from social media that freedom of speech gives Americans the right to say some outrageous things, with few restrictions. But is there a legal right to heckle a speaker, as happened recently in Westminster?

The heckling incident occurred as Carroll Community Action Network conducted a “Lights for Liberty” rally in Belle Grove Square, Westminster. The rally was part of a national protest against migrant children being separated from their parents at the U.S. border and held under conditions that included lack of water — which forced the children to drink from toilets — overcrowded facilities, poor food and outbreaks of illness.

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Local speakers described conditions observers have reported finding at Border Control facilities. Others spoke of personal histories of family immigrations, such as one speaker whose grandparents fled Lithuania with whatever they could carry as the Russians rolled into the country at the close of World War II.

As one woman addressed the group, a man strode forward to confront the speaker, shouting, “You can’t come to America! I’m a veteran.”

Was the heckler’s shout protected by freedom of speech? Or was it an unprotected interference with a gathering that CCAN had obtained a city permit to hold? If you’re looking for a definitive answer, stop reading.

Free speech questions are among the law’s most complicated issues. The U.S. Constitution tells only, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech ...”

The Constitution prohibits Congress from abridging the free exercise of speech, but the legal status of heckling — at what point it becomes a violation — is less clear.

The late Nat Hentoff, author of a weekly syndicated column who wrote extensively on heckling, wrote of one incident, “First Amendment law is clear that everyone has the right to picket a speaker, and to go inside the hall and heckle him or her — but not to drown out the speaker, let alone rush the stage and stop the speech.”

Hentoff may have been trying to draw a line between a speaker’s First Amendment right to speak and the hecklers’ rights to free speech of their own. The line remains difficult to draw.

Heckling is so common it has spawned the term, “heckler’s veto,” which describes a situation where a speaker’s right to be heard is curtailed or restricted to prevent a reacting party’s behavior. Cancellation of a scheduled speech because of potentially violent reaction by opponents is an example.

Can police arrest a heckler? Under certain circumstances, yes. The Supreme Court ruled in a 1951 case that police acted within their power when they arrested a heckler, because the arrest was motivated, “by a proper concern for the preservation of order and protection of the general welfare.”

The Westminster heckler was escorted to the edge of the park by city police. He continued his rant for a brief time, but was not arrested and walked away. The rally speaker was able to conclude her remarks without further incident.

Donna Engle is a retired Westminster attorney. Her Legal Matters column, which provides legal information but not legal advice, appears on the second and fourth Sunday each month in Life & Times. Email her at denglelaw@gmail.com.

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