Protesters went too far at Friday forum

In moral, not legal terms, you have a right to walk down the sidewalk swinging your fists. But when another pedestrian passes by, the moral right to wave freely ends. It ends somewhere very close to the other person’s face, at the point where fist-waving becomes nose-punching. Your right to swing your hands and the other person’s right not to be hit conflict, and in this simple case the passive freedom from harm must take precedence over the active liberty to wave. Using this kind of example carries the danger of blurring the line between moral rights and obligations and legal reasoning on the same topics.
So a disclaimer is in order. When about 70 demonstrators disrupted U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson’s remarks Friday morning at the Humphrey Institute, they were within their constitutional rights. Neither the police nor the University should try to punish the protesters. That said, the demonstrators were wrong to act as they did. Richardson had long been scheduled to speak Friday. The current standoff with Iraq and the possibility of U.S. military action against that country dominate foreign policy discussions. As one of America’s top diplomats, it’s only natural that Richardson would discuss, and attract attention regarding, the Iraq situation.
Richardson did use Friday’s forum to explain U.S. policy toward Iraq. Or he tried, anyway. Before he could finish his remarks, the protesters began chanting. They were the same chants used seven years ago on the eve of the Gulf War, and they continued Friday until Richardson could no longer be heard. After a few minutes, he gave up trying. Richardson’s ability to speak is not really the question; he has numerous opportunities to talk without fear of interruption. But other members of the University community were harmed by the demonstrators. The public’s right to hear one of their leaders explain decisions made in their name stood in conflict with the protesters’ rights to speak.
In this case, the passive freedom to listen to what one chooses should take precedence over the active right to chant “No blood for oil.” On Friday, the demonstrators crossed the line from slogan-shouting to speech-silencing. The audience Friday was assembled to hear Richardson. They should not have been prevented from doing so. Instead of acting as freelance censors, the demonstrators should have listened while Richardson spoke. They could have held banners, waved flags or displayed photographs during his remarks. They could have chanted or sung immediately before and after the event, as Richardson approached or left the podium.
The forum allowed time for audience questions. This was the time for critics of U.S. policy to speak up, not by shouting bumper sticker slogans but by discussing flaws in official thinking and proposing alternatives. Such a discussion would have given the audience a chance to hear from many sides and to make or reserve judgement on their own. Protest and dissent should encourage, not silence, argument and debate. Richardson’s hecklers showed that they don’t trust the rest of us to think for ourselves. This is a cynical and dangerous attitude. Especially when war hangs in the balance, the University community should expect better conduct than that on display Friday.