The current management of the Boston Symphony Orchestra might have had little in common socially with Mayor Frank ("I Am the Law") Hague of Jersey City, but both appreciated the value of the "heckler's veto." Hague used to forbid meetings led by labor organizers in the public parks because, he said, they might cause a disturbance. That is, the union men might get beaten up by those who did not like their views. In 1939 the Supreme Court informed Hague that the threat of hecklers, including violent hecklers, could not be allowed to silence even those speakers whom the mayor found obnoxious.
Similarly, in 1981, Hugh Carey, then governor of New York, tried to cancel a rugby game in Albany because one of the teams was from South Africa. The governor said there would be much bloodshed if those players took the field. None of the groups protesting South Africa's apartheid had said anything about violence; but even if they had, the courts pointed out, the heckler's veto is at fundamental odds with the First Amendment. If there is an explosion of violence, it is the job of the police to collar those responsible so that the rest of the people in the audience can see what they came to see.
Sometimes, however, the heckler's veto does stop an event. In 1982, after engaging Vanessa Redgrave to narrate a series of performances of Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex," the Boston Symphony Orchestra cancelled her contract for what it called "causes and circumstances beyond the orchestra's reasonable control." But Redgrave said she had been sacked for her political views, specifically for her persistent support of the Palestine Liberation Organization. She sued the BSO for damages, and last week, Redgrave won a $100,000 judgment in addition to her original fee of $27,500 for the deleted performances.
It was a significant victory, and not only for Vanessa Redgrave. Unlike the circumstances that brought Frank Hague and Hugh Carey to court, the removal of Redgrave from the stage was not done by the state. Therefore, her attorneys were not able to wield the First Amendment on her behalf, although, as they told the jury, the spirit of the First Amendment hovered about the courtroom. After all, there had been no complaints about her professional skills. She had been punished because of political expression in which she had engaged on her own time. The punishment, her lawyers added, went beyond the cancelled dates, because other managements had then become afraid to hire someone so politically notorious as to be a pariah in even so sophisticated a milieu as the Athens of America.
The BSO admitted that it showed Redgrave the door because of threats of violence should she appear; auguries of a mutiny by members of the orhestra; and a highly probable devastating reduction in financial support of the orchestra by Jewish symphony-goers who regard the PLO with as much detestation as Redgrave regards the state of Israel.
However, the BSO management insisted that it itself had no prejudice one way or another with regard to Redgrave's politics. Therefore, it could hardly be accused of anything so crude as McCarthyism. The orchestra acted, it said, because of its concern about whether it would be able to put on the production.
At the trial, it turned out that the threats to disrupt the performances were somewhat less than terrifying. The founder of the Massachusetts Jewish Defense League testifed, as The Boston Globe reported, that all he had promised was a picket line, not even a stink bomb. In any case, the police commissioner said from the stand that his troops could have guaranteed public safety no matter what anybody tried to do. And had there been a revolt by some members of the orchestra, the BSO, after all, has a substitute pool of 100 crack musicians in the city, any of whom can handle Stravinsky. The financial contributions might well have dropped substantially, but that should not be the problem of the artist with whom the orchestra signed a contract.
The outcome of it all -- the jury's finding that the BSO had violated Redgrave's contract -- is a victory for that old common- law piece of social glue. A contract is made to be honored even if it is made with an actress who, off the job, carries placards that frighten the horses. But are her politics the core of this case? Said one juror after the verdict: "We feel they cancelled because of public reaction to her political views. We didn't feel the BSO's views personally were the reason." But the BSO did, then, cancel because of her political views.
Redgrave, to be sure, has her own reservations about free speech, having urged British artist to refuse to perform with any official Israeli theater, dance or musical groups. But this is hardly the first time someone who is not a true believer in free expression has benefited by others' belief in it.
Had the BSO won, as Peter Sellars -- a former stage director for the orchestra -- says, "No artist [would be] safe to express his or her political views." Including, from time to time, artists who are Zionists.