Everybody is in favor of free speech — as long as it’s not too free. Or too speechy.
Liberals and conservatives alike support the First Amendment’s prohibition of government interference in our right to express ourselves. They believe it’s as fundamental to truth, justice, and the American way as that illegal immigrant
Unless, of course, it involves using profanity on TV. Or anonymously advocating the defeat of a political candidate. Or allowing panhandlers to hold signs on median strips. Or it’s just annoying.
Maine has a rich tradition of stifling speech that has the potential to unsettle the thoroughly settled, to call into question the unquestionable or to attempt to present reality to the unrealistic.
For example, the town of Fairfield earlier this year instituted a policy that municipal employees, on their own time and using their own computers, must refrain from posting anything online that includes swear words and sexually explicit language or reflects badly on the town. In Freeport last year, town employees routinely disposed of unsigned publications critical of local officials. In March, a rival school sought to have Fort Kent Community High School’s entry in a one-act play competition disqualified because it allegedly contained homosexual content (two boys hugged). Waldoboro schools tried to ban breast-cancer awareness bracelets that said “I [heart] boobies.” Our own state constitution says the right to bear arms “shall never be questioned.”
Let’s see if they can enforce that last one. I hereby officially question whether law-abiding citizens should be allowed to buy guns. If the rest of this column is blank, you’ll know not to try that one yourself.
Free speech is an ideal. As that ideal gets translated into the real world, it’s often confounded by statements that one might find false, upsetting or offensive. In those cases, right-wingers, left-wingers, and middle-of-the-roaders all have a tendency to toss aside constitutional standards and attempt to impose their wills on those with whom they disagree.
For conservative Governor Paul LePage, that might involve commandeering a Maine Air National Guard plane and dropping bombs on the Portland Press Herald’s offices. For moderates in the state’s congressional delegation, it could be the passage of legislation designed to stop whackjobs from a Kansas church from holding up nasty signs at military funerals. And for liberals, it’s about setting up protest-free buffer zones around abortion facilities.
The Portland City Council is currently considering an ordinance dealing with that very issue. For many months, anti-abortion activists have been picketing outside Planned Parenthood’s office on Congress Street. They hold up disgusting photos of aborted fetuses. They shout biblical quotations promising eternal damnation. They take video of people entering and leaving, and threaten to post it on the Internet.
In short, they’re jerks.
But a careful check of the statutes indicates that — much to my relief — there’s no law against jerkiness. Being irritating, intimidating or irrational are all fine examples of protected free speech.
As someone who thinks government should have no role in women’s decisions about their bodies, I’m unsympathetic to the demonstrators’ messages. I think safe, legal abortion services should be as readily available as the kind of sex education, birth control, and adoption programs that would make such operations unnecessary. But as a free-speech advocate, I’m having a tough time believing a buffer zone is are anything but a euphemism for a shut-your-offensive-pie-hole zone. Like the ones they have in Iran and the People’s Republic of China.