The curious case of public protest


With recent protests causing disruption to university activities, James Fagan questions how far our right to express ourselves goes.

Over the past year there have been a number of incidents at colleges and universities around the country involving intimidation of high-profile guests, the prevention of invited guests from speaking, or the complete prevention of them attending events organised by college societies.

The most recent case occurred on the 3rd February in NUI Galway (NUIG). The NUIG Literary and Debating Society invited former-Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern to a reception and public interview on the campus. The event had to be called off when anti third-level fee protesters heckled and jostled Mr Ahern. A gardaí presence was required to escort the former Taoiseach to ensure his safe exit.

This level of intimidation is similar to events in UCD last year such as Conor Lenihan’s cancellation of speaking to the Literary and Historical (L&H) society over rowdy protests and the prevention of Minister Eamon Ryan from entering the lecture theatre where he was due to speak at a Law Society (LawSoc) debate. Such protests raise questions over how far we can go with our right to protest.

It is certainly an objectionable idea that the rights of these groups to protest, which one cannot disagree with, should supercede and directly conflict with those who have come to attend the events in question. One might argue that they need to be able to bring their message out in the clearest, loudest manner possible on certain occasions. However this cannot be at the expense of others.

Many of the people who attend debates and events are members of the organising society and as such have paid money to be so. While this may be small it does mean that they have a right to see the guests promised to them. While we have a right to protest, there is a limit to what you can do.

The protests in question are depriving others of a right to receive something they have both paid for and have a genuine interest in. How can the protests then be seen as being legitimate in a democracy if they are preventing others from doing something they are fully and legitimately entitled to? In short they cannot.

“This behaviour merely shows you as an uncouth, spineless coward who doesn’t have sufficient convictions to rationalise and present your ideas for people to react to”

There is an argument that can be put forward in favour of the protests, that their protests are entwined with their right of free expression. Proponents of this would say that freedom of expression should never be limited as it is too important to make your views heard, even if a few may suffer a small bit of disruption. To handle this point it is important to understand what the justifications of an unlimited freedom of expression are, of which there are two main viewpoints.

Firstly, there is the idea that opinions are part of what makes us an individual. Extending from this is that in a democracy, where independence is valued, we have the right to influence the world around us with our opinion. If this isn’t done then we do not live in a democracy per se, as our views are unheeded and blocked from being brought out. Our intrinsic value as a thinking, feeling human being is ignored.

Yet these protests do not fit with this. They simply go too far. The protesters can influence their world, bringing forth their ideas without preventing guests from speaking or attending events. They are neglecting the value of others and their ideas. They clearly have no respect for others, so how can they be deserving of more respect?

Secondly (and perhaps more importantly), freedom of expression is seen as fulfilling a role in society. This role is to raise issues in the realm of political debate, to make people think and to cause controversy so to speak. Sparking this ‘controversy’ leads to debate that should always be welcomed in society. It helps to form new ideas and solutions to problems because it makes people engage with something they may not have thought of themselves. Debate is a springboard for development and should be encouraged.

However these protests are not adding to debate on the issue they are trying to address. In fact they are running away from it. The protests have prevented people speaking on the very issues the groups are campaigning for or against. How is it fair that one side can put forth their central idea but prevent the other side from putting out theirs or even responding at all? Surely that makes them the very limiter of expression that they are vehemently against.

Furthermore, the protesters do not even develop their ideas beyond shouting “Down with X” accompanied by a slogan of “Think of Y’s rights”. So it’s not exactly adding constructively to any debate. There is nothing wrong with keeping things simple for the sake of bringing attention to your qualm but when you don’t let someone engage with you nor get up on the debating rostrum yourself then there is a problem. This behaviour merely shows you as an uncouth, spineless coward who doesn’t have sufficient convictions to rationalise and present your ideas for people to react to.

To get their ideas across what they must do is explain their points of view. Their current behaviour serves only to paint them as radicals, ostracising themselves from the debate. If they want to drum up support they need to do it in a civilised fashion. It is counter-intuitive to annoy and upset a large group of people in order to try obtaining support for what would otherwise be a worthy cause.

In conclusion these protests are an illegitimate way to further the groups’ points. Protests should be a vital component to our society and political process; they do serve a good role in highlighting issues dear to people. Yet when your protest stops constructive debate, is ignorant of and in direct, overwhelming conflict with the rights of others then you are part of the problem not the solution.