As far as free speech cases went, it was a strange one. An elementary school in North Carolina told a male student, Grayson Bruce, to stop bringing his backpack to school. The reason? The backpack depicted Rainbow Dash from the TV show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Other students at the school had been bullying Bruce because of the backpack. This request stood until late last week, when Candler Elementary School allowed Bruce to return to school with his backpack. 
The story of Bruce’s backpack is far from unique, though. In order to prevent violent clashes between white and Hispanic students, Live Oaks High School in California banned clothing marked with the American flag on Cinco de Mayo. However, whereas the school in Bruce’s case changed its ways, Live Oak High School took its rule to court. Earlier this month, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the schools decision. Come May 5, no student at Live Oaks will be sporting the stars and stripes on campus. 
These cases depict a classic dilemma for those who promote free speech: the hecklers’ veto.  Whenever the government silences an individual or group in order to avoid a response from another individual or group, it has exercised the heckler’s veto. It’s not a new concept, but in an age of terrorism and school shootings, it seems as if the heckler’s veto has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years.
Of course, each instance of the heckler’s veto is unique, and some cases seem more clear-cut than others. A young boy being chided for “triggering” bullies with a “girly” backpack is easy to condemn, but when speech triggers actual violence and real threats, as it did at Live Oaks, it gives people pause. Of course the government should protect free speech, but how much should it risk in the name of that speech?
Before we can answer that question, though, we must answer another one: Is free speech a threat, or is it being threatened? This question highlights the real issue behind the heckler’s veto. Free speech is not the offender—it never is. Free speech is the victim. It is the victim of bullies and thugs who are trying to deprive others of their equal voice.
We cannot allow the government to be complicit in that deprivation. The First Amendment aspires to many goals, but among the most important goals is the preservation of each and every person’s equal voice in society. Without an equal voice, we cannot have a fair and representative discourse. Without an equal voice, we cannot air grievances and shape the society in which we live.
Protecting citizens’ equal voices is not always easy. Sometimes, it requires genuine risks and sacrifices. However, we must not cower in the face of adversity. Some of the most valuable rights and principles are the ones that are most difficult to protect. Allowing the hecklers to win only emboldens them. If terrorists can silence their critics through more criticism, then perhaps misogynists can silence feminist voices through public and anonymous threats.
The incidents at Candler and Live Oaks didn’t happen out on the street, though. They occurred at schools. Indeed, schools and universities are often ripe for the exercise of the heckler’s veto. Promoting one unpopular voice is not worth risking major, possibly violent disruptions.
At the same time, hecklers’ attempts to silence voices at public schools highlight exactly why leaders at these educational institutions should not succumb to intimidation. Schools offer a valuable platform for those who seek to promote their views. At a school or university, speakers have the opportunity to mold the culture that the next generation will adopt. If we allow schools to exercise the heckler’s veto, then we strike a mortal blow to the principle of an equal voice.
Each and every act of speech, both verbal and symbolic, is crucial to one’s equal voice in society. When one’s voice comes under threat, the government should offer protection, not further victimization. This will not always be easy, and it may at times be scary, but freedom is worth a little bit of risk.