Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Heckler's Veto Definition:

(USA) A controversial legal position taken by law enforcement officers based on an alleged right to restrict freedom of speech where such expression may create disorder or provoke violence.

Related Terms: First Amendment, Freedom of Expression, Speech

In Roe v Crawford, Justice Riley wrote:

"The heckler's veto involves situations in which the government attempts to ban protected speech because it might provoke a violent response. In such situations, the mere possibility of a violent reaction to protected speech is simply not a constitutional basis on which to restrict the right to speak."

In Startzell, Justice Sloviter made the court's repugnance for an alleged heckler's veto clear by adopting these words:

"If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable. In public debate our own citizens must tolerate insulting, and even outrageous, speech in order to provide adequate breathing space to the freedoms protected by the First Amendment.

"A heckler's veto is an impermissible content-based restriction on speech where the speech is prohibited due to an anticipated disorderly or violent reaction of the audience."

Similarly, in Hedges, Justice Easterbrook:

"The police are supposed to preserve order, which unpopular speech may endanger. Does it follow that the police may silence the rabble-rousing speaker? Not at all. The police must permit the speech and control the crowd. There is no heckler's veto. Just as bellicose bystanders cannot authorize the government to silence a speaker, so ignorant bystanders cannot make censorship legitimate."


  • Hedges v. Wauconda Community School District, 9 F. 3d 1295 (United States Court of Appeals, 1993)
  • Roe v. Crawford, 514 F. 3d 789 (United States Court of Appeals, 2007, at footnote 3)
  • Startzell v. City of Philadelphia, 533 F. 3d 183 (United States Court of Appeals, 2008)

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