Hentoff on the Tasering of the First Amendment
By Nat Hentoff
The very widely viewed video of the arrest and Tasering of University of Florida student Andrew Meyer for continuing to ask Senator John Kerry about impeaching the president, and whether Kerry and Bush were members of Yale’s secret society, Skull and Bones, was a classic assault on the First Amendment.
Under First Amendment law, you can loudly question, disagree with, or heckle a speaker—unless you make it impossible for the speaker to continue. That’s called “the heckler’s veto,” and is not protected by the First Amendment.
In this case, as the insistent Meyer’s own speech was fractured—his microphone cut off, college police wrestling him to the ground, handcuffing and then Tasering him—the speaker, Kerry, was saying, “That’s all right, let me answer the question.”
Then, as the boisterous student was screaming for help and pleading not to be tased, the former presidential candidate told the audience that he still wanted to answer Meyer’s “very important question.”
Clearly, this speaker was not unable to continue. On the contrary, in what I consider one of Kerry’s finest moments—amid all the turbulence, much more of it caused by the campus police than by Meyer—he still wanted to go on.
The wielders of the Taser have been placed on administrative leave, indicating that the university administration may be having doubts even as Meyer has been charged with resisting an officer and disturbing the peace. He certainly did the first—in defense of his First Amendment rights. Since Kerry wanted to answer, the peace was then disturbed by the police.
If this case ever goes to trial, Meyer’s lawyer, Robert Griscti, tells the AP that “it appeared his client was shocked [by the taser] after he had been handcuffed.” (Is anyone considering charges against the police?)
Meyer was hauled away, screaming, “What did I do?”
Before and after the First Amendment was added to the constitution in 1791, there was much tumultuous speech in this fledgling republic, leading President John Adams to push through Congress the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts that punished any of the new Americans who held the president or Congress “up to ridicule.” Anti-administration newspaper editors were arrested and imprisoned.
Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams and became our third president, in large part because he strongly condemned the Alien and Sedition Acts. Jefferson then rescinded all punishments of those who had violated the anti-free speech act.
If they know American history, Florida’s state attorney and the president of the University of Florida will do the same in the instructive case of Andrew Meyer.
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