(New York)– Protesters who shouted down Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin K. McAleenan at Georgetown University Law Center this Monday deprived audience members of the chance to engage in meaningful debate on an issue of critical importance, PEN America said in a statement today.

On Monday, the Migration Policy Institute hosted McAleenan as the keynote speaker at their Immigration Law and Policy Conference. After he was introduced, nearly a dozen protesters stood up and began a series of chants that drowned out McAleenan’s speech. The Institute’s director of United States immigration policy, Doris Meissner, pleaded multiple times with the protesters to stop so that McAleenan could continue his speech, arguing that they were depriving others in the audience of an opportunity for real dialogue. After being interrupted while attempting to deliver his speech multiple times, and following several other interventions on the part of the conference organizers, McAleenan left the stage. 

“The protesters’ outrage over the Trump Administration’s immigration policy is legitimate, but shouting down speakers in a public forum is not the answer to confronting wrongheaded views,” said Jonathan Friedman, project director for campus free speech at PEN America. “Protests cross the line when they constitute a ‘heckler’s veto,’ preventing someone else’s speech and curtailing the rights of those who came to listen. While this could have been an opportunity to engage McAleenan in a rigorous debate over government policies, the protesters robbed other audience members of any opportunity to challenge McAleenan or voice their opinions on one of the most important and contentious political issues facing our country. That is an unfortunate outcome.”

“The event organizers tried to accommodate the protesters, recognizing their rights to free speech and assembly, and repeatedly asking them to be quiet in a respectful manner,” Friedman said. “But the protesters disregarded those requests, making it virtually impossible for McAleenan to talk to those who had come to listen. In the long run, such censorious protests risk being counterproductive, as they can alienate those who may otherwise be supportive of the protest’s message. The protesters in this case should have registered their dissent in a way that would still have allowed McAleenan’s talk to proceed.” 

PEN America’s new Campus Free Speech Guide, launched in 2019, offers practical tips for students, faculty, and administrators on how to deal with student protests and invited speakers. The Guide features case studies on forceful and but non-censorious protests such as those against Betsy DeVos at the Harvard Kennedy School in 2017. PEN America has also previously addressed the problem of speaker shout-downs and the heckler’s veto in its 2019 report, Chasm in the Classroom: Campus Free Speech in a Divided America

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, media consultant, strimel@pen.org