Free speech on campus: should hecklers be banned?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London

Recorded at the Battle of Ideas festival 2023 on Saturday 28 October at Church House, London.


The right to protest and heckle is crucial to exercising our freedom of speech. But increasingly, actions on campus are deliberately designed to disrupt proceedings and to intimidate and silence speakers.

Protests at the University of Edinburgh resulted in a film showing of Adult Human Female being abandoned – twice. Kathleen Stock’s appearance at the Oxford Union was disrupted by an activist glued to the debating-chamber floor near the speaker’s chair. Infamously, at Goldsmiths, University of London, Maryam Namazie’s talk on blasphemy and apostasy was abandoned when Islamic Society students aggressively interrupted her before switching off the slide projector.

Such protests – or the possibility of disorderly protests – that lead to an event being cancelled, abandoned or rendered pointless amount to a ‘heckler’s veto’.

In the context of campus free-speech wars, the new Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act places a duty on universities to champion academic freedom and free speech. However, concerns over the chilling effect of the heckler’s veto have led some supporters of freedom to argue institutions should not be obliged to support forms of speech that restrict another person’s right to free expression or academic freedom. The right to protest, they argue, does not amount to a right to silence others, not least as free expression within universities is vital to developing knowledge.

Defenders of these protests say opponents of gender-critical views should be equally free to express themselves – and that it’s better to protest speakers they dislike rather than try to get them cancelled. Noisy, disruptive interventions, they argue, are simply a form of free speech – and the heckle is a long-standing and legitimate tactic to express disagreement. They also point to the irony of a free-speech act being used to limit freedom, and worry that to ban these protests could invite ever more restrictions. For example, a protester who was arrested outside Adult Human Female was subsequently banned from attending or being within 200 feet of any protest on any subject on the university’s campus. Vice-chancellors have warned that anyone expressing support for Hamas could face arrest.

How should we respond to the dilemma of the heckler’s veto? Should universities take practical steps to restrict protests when they are so loud that they deny someone else’s free speech, whether over trans issues or the conflict in Israel? Is it legitimate to veto the heckler’s veto? Or could this be a slippery slope that may end up constraining and compromising wider hard-won freedoms?

Dennis Hayes
professor of education, University of Derby; founder and director, Academics For Academic Freedom (AFAF); author, The Death of Academic Freedom? Free speech and censorship

Dr Holly Lawford-Smith
associate professor in political philosophy, University of Melbourne; author, Gender-Critical Feminism and Sex Matters: Essays in Gender-Critical Philosophy

Dr James Orr
associate professor of philosophy of religion, University of Cambridge

Professor Alice Sullivan
professor of sociology, UCL Social Research Institute

Professor James Tooley
vice chancellor, University of Buckingham; author, The Beautiful Tree

Alastair Donald
co-convenor, Battle of Ideas festival; convenor, Living Freedom; author, Letter on Liberty: The Scottish Question