Opinion

Free speech does not mean disruptive heckling

Delhi women law students were not expressing their right to free speech by disrupting a show by comedian Abish Mathew.

Imagine Jerry Seinfeld is performing in India. A packed house is in attendance, getting rapturous as Seinfeld gets into his flow. And then, a bunch of hecklers from the Bajrang Dal disrupt the show. Seinfeld takes the interruption gracefully, but the hecklers won’t let him finish, and he eventually makes one last joke and then leaves the stage. What would your reaction be to this incident?

I would be aghast, and very clear on who was in the wrong: the hecklers. If the Bajrang Dal chaps protested that Seinfeld’s content was offensive to them, I’d say, “Ok, leave the premises then. And protest elsewhere by all means.” If they argued that they were expressing their right to free speech, and that protesting at their heckling was akin to censorship, it would be mildly ridiculous. To me, there would only be one guilty party here, the Bajrang Dal, and three wronged parties: the organisers, whose property rights were infringed upon by the hecklers; Seinfeld, who was not allowed to finish; and the audience, which did not get their money’s worth.

If you agree with my argument above, you would also agree, I suppose, that the principles involved hold regardless of the parties involved. So if I was at a Baba Ramdev show, and he expressed views repugnant to me, such as an attack on homosexuality, I would be disgusted, and the appropriate response to that would be to walk out and express my disgust elsewhere. But I would not have the right to disrupt his speech, and the organisers of that show would not have an obligation to offer me their platform for my views. In terms of principles, my heckling Ramdev off the stage would be exactly as wrong as the Bajrang Dal forcing Seinfeld to stop performing.

I write this, as you’d have guessed, in the context of the comedian Abish Mathew being booed off stage while performing at a Delhi college, and the subsequent defence of the hecklers in some quarters. Mathew is not Seinfeld or Ramdev, but the same principles that applied to their hypothetical hecklers apply to his. The hecklers in question were were not expressing their right to free speech by disrupting the show. Free speech applies to one's own space and to public spaces: I cannot enter someone’s house, abuse him, and protest when I am being thrown out that he is infringing upon my right to free speech. He is not; on the contrary, I am infringing upon his property. (In fact, as I argue here, the right to free speech is a property right.)

The hecklers should have protested outside the venue, or after the performance. To disturb the performance was graceless. To use another example, if I am at a Kishori Amonkar concert and am getting bored, I will quietly walk out. It would be incredibly boorish if I heckled her and made her stop. To argue that Mathew is not Kishori Amonkar, or that Seinfeld is classy and Ramdev is a bigot, is missing the point. The same principles apply.

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