The First Amendment saved America. So far, anyway. In a totalitarian state like Russia, free speech is first to vanish in any crisis. When Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, he immediately shut down independent media and banned the word “war.”
That couldn’t happen in America. Yet.
Free speech is studied and supported by legal scholars, now and in the past. Scholars like Harry Kalven Jr., a beloved University of Chicago Law professor who in a book published in 1965 called “The Negro and the First Amendment” offered up a very useful concept: the heckler’s veto. The heckler’s veto is when, Kalven explained, authorities interfere with free speech to protect the speaker, supposedly, in the face of public hostility.
A textbook example of the heckler’s veto occurred in Chicago the year the book was published. Comedian Dick Gregory led a protest against the inferior education Black children were given at Chicago Public Schools.
They marched to Mayor Richard J. Daley’s home in Bridgeport and were met by a howling mob, hurling eggs and rocks. The police asked the demonstrators to leave and, when they didn’t, arrested them, explaining that the mob was too big to arrest. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld their actions.
The case went to the Supreme Court, where in Gregory v. City of Chicago, Justice Hugo Black evoked the heckler’s veto in ruling for Gregory. Our constitutional rights cannot be shouted down.
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