How Milton Friedman Responded to Some Hostile Audience Members

The horrible treatment of a speaker at Stanford Law School by some law students and a dean a couple of weeks ago reminded me of something that happened over 50 years ago.

In November 1971, when I was attending the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, my newfound friend Harry Watson (who, sadly, died last Sunday) and I drove down to New York City to attend a libertarian conference at Columbia University. The speakers I remember were Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, and David Friedman and, in my mind, both ex ante and ex post, the star was Milton.

First up was Milton who said that he wouldn’t be making a speech but would take questions that we wrote out and sent to the front. The emcee was Gary Greenberg, who sorted through the questions and read them out.

There were about 150 people in the auditorium and about 5 to 10 of them were in the back wearing all black. Some of them carried copies of Murray Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State. They stood and held their copies in one hand and made a fist with the other. (One of them, I think, was my fellow Canadian Sam Konkin.) That was annoying enough but, hey, they had the right to dress and hold themselves however they wanted. But then when Milton started speaking, they interrupted by booing and shouting out hostile comments and questions. Milton ignored them at first but they kept it up. So finally, Milton stopped and said, “Is that any way for people to behave?” Harry and I were in front and, along with many others in the audience, we shouted “No.” Then all but a few stopped heckling, but one or two shouted out something. A guy behind us yelled, “I came to here him, not you.”

Then it stopped. But as Milton started to answer the first question, a few people in the back hissed long and hard.

Milton stopped what he was saying and then said, “Well, in that case, sssssss.” The audience, including Harry and me, roared with laughter. The hissing stopped and the event proceeded.

The reason I remember this so well is that I taped the talk and played it a number of times. Also, I think I taped over it because cassette tapes were pricy relative to my wealth. (That was a mistake, even ex ante.)

I’m not comparing the awful actions of 5 to 10 people in an audience of 150 to the awful and persistent actions of dozens of people in an audience of 100 or so. So the judge probably would not have been able to use Milton’s technique effectively.