How to respond to heckling during a speech
Heckling during a speech can be acceptable if the interruptions are momentary and the speaker is able to continue. Allowing for minor disruptions or airing of disagreements can be a useful outlet for dissent. When frequent or prolonged interruptions have the effect of silencing the speaker, a stronger response may be required.
If an outburst impedes the speaker’s ability to communicate to a willing audience, issue a stern warning to the disrupters, making clear which policies are being violated and what the possible consequences are.
If tensions escalate, it is important for the faculty, staff, and administrators who are present to be sources of calm and patience.
If a disruption is repeated, loud, unceasing, or physical—and if other approaches have failed—it is reasonable for administrators to take action to stop it so the event can proceed. Only under truly extraordinary circumstances should administrators cancel the talk.
Administrators should acknowledge that college years are a time for students to test boundaries and experiment with various forms of speech and activism. Consequences for errors of judgment should therefore be commensurate, and geared toward the possibility of learning and future improvement. Administrators should be judicious in determining any disciplinary action.
If appropriate, review your institution’s policies on protests and disruptions to ensure that they are neutral with regard to viewpoint. Develop protocols that clearly detail how staff should respond to various scenarios, and consider providing specific language that they should use.
Following the incident, publish a clear and fair record of what happened and what steps the university took in response. Whether by press release, campus-wide email, or social media, communicate specifically how the heckler’s actions violated campus policies.
After the controversy has wound down, take time to reflect on the actions taken. What was handled well? What could have been improved?