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A heckler's veto occurs when an acting party's right to freedom of speech is curtailed or restricted in order to prevent a reacting party's behavior. The common example is that of demonstrators (reacting party) causing a speech (given by the acting party) to be terminated in order to preserve the peace.

In the United States, case law regarding the heckler's veto is mixed. Most findings say that the acting party's actions cannot be pre-emptively stopped due to fear of heckling by the reacting party, but in the immediate face of violence, authorities can ask the acting party to cease their action in order to satisfy the hecklers.

The best known case involving the heckler's veto is probably Feiner v. New York, handed down by the Supreme Court in 1951. Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, writing for the majority, held that police officers acted within their power in arresting a speaker if the arrest was "motivated solely by a proper concern for the preservation of order and protection of the general welfare." 340 U.S. 315.

It was rejected in Hill v. Colorado, 530 U.S. 703, 735 (SCOTUS 2000). where The US Supreme Court rejected the "Heckler's Veto," where "grants of power to private actors" allow "a single, private actor to unilaterally silence a speaker"[1]


Lay use of the phrase

Heckler's veto is often used outside a strict legal context. One example is an article by Nat Hentoff in which he claims that "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 before it starts. That's called the 'heckler's veto'." [2]

In Hentoff's formulation, the heckler him or herself is the party which directly carries out the "veto" and suppresses speech.

See also


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