Friday, August 07, 2009

Do we have a constitutionally protected right to listen and to be heard?

All of us Americans have a constitutionally-protected right of "freedom of speech", but do we have a protected right to listen and hear what someone else is saying and do we have a protected right to be heard by those who we are speaking to? Maybe or maybe not.

Amendment I of the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution simply says:

Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech ...

That does not necessarily guarantee that you can and will be heard whenever and wherever you want, but simply forbids Congress from trying to stop you from speaking.

That same amendment gives us the right to assemble:

Congress shall make no law ... abridging ... the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

What if one or more citizens seek to prevent you from being heard?

What if one or more citizens seek to prevent you from hearing what someone else has to say?

Do constituents have a right to hear what their elected representatives and officials have to say?

Is trying to "shout someone down" constitutionally-protected exercise of "freedom of speech"?

Stray hecklers are to be tolerated, but is the same true if large numbers of them gang up and act in concert as a mob, seeking to prevent a speaker or a citizen from being heard and preventing others from hearing what is being said?

Do members of a mob of hecklers have a right to use their constitutionally-protected "freedom of speech" to intimidate, both physically and verbally, citizens from speaking, being heard, and hearing others?

Does the constitutional protection of "freedom of speech" extend to using that speech to disrupt a constitutionally-protected and lawful gathering of citizens?

Does the right of assembly really permit hecklers from outside the district to "pack" the available seating of a venue to prevent citizens of the district from peaceably assembling?

Lately there have been quite a number of incidents where "right-wingers" have been nominally exercising their constitutionally-protected rights  to freedom of speech" and "peaceably to assemble" at "town halls" of numerous congressmen across the country, but with their extreme heckling and mob-like behavior having the effect of causing extreme disruption, and as I suggest here interfering with the ability of citizens to: 1) assemble in a peaceable manner,  2) hear what their congressman has to say, 3) to speak and be heard by their congressman, and 4) to hear what their fellow citizens have to say to them and their congressman.

In my view, this kind of behavior is in fact abridging the rights to freedom of speech and assembly of the non-hecklers and their congressmen, and that this behavior is in fact a misuse of the freedoms of speech and to assemble, analogous to yelling "fire" in a crowded theater or inciting a mob to disruptive and disorderly behavior.

Where exactly to draw the line for what is protected and proscribed is a thorny matter. Nonetheless, it is deeply disturbing that we do not have "community standards" of decency and courteous conduct that would cover these types of situations.

I would hate to have to make it a crime for a group of people to heckle and heckle loudly, but it is ridiculous that this type of behavior should be tolerated let alone contemplated here in the 21st century.

-- Jack Krupansky


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