Politics & Other Mistakes: Talking too much

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There’s no such thing as free speech.

Just because we live in a country where we don’t have to worry about jack-booted thugs smashing down our doors in the middle of the night to haul us off to re-education camps, doesn’t mean speaking freely comes without consequences. The U.S. Constitution protects us from government intrusion into our postings and prattling, but if you say something controversial, there can still be nasty aftereffects.

Your employer can fire you. Your religious institution can kick you out. Your family and friends can shun you. Bartenders can refuse to serve you. Dogs can pee on your pant leg.

That’s as it should be. Having the courage – or the foolhardiness – to make outrageous statements ought to involve taking responsibility for what you say. If you can’t handle that, be less brave – or less stupid.

Two recent incidents illustrate how difficult it is to grasp that concept.

The first was the January appearance of conservative commentator Michelle Malkin at an event sponsored by the University of Maine College Republicans. Malkin, who’s been accused of xenophobia, Islamophobia, and coddling neo-Nazis, was originally scheduled to speak at a hotel in South Portland. That facility backed out shortly before the event. The speech was moved to Lewiston. Another last-minute cancellation. Then, an Auburn golf course. Nope. Finally, it was held at the Sabattus Town Hall.

Reportedly, the venues that rejected Malkin did so after receiving complaints. In at least one case, there was an allegation of threats. That last one was not only unacceptable but also illegal. Otherwise, every organization that took a pass was within its rights to do so, either because it objected to the speaker or to avoid alienating its customers.

Nevertheless, the young GOPers managed to overreact. “The left intended to shut down the state of Maine,” Jeremiah Childs, vice president of the college Republicans, told the Lewiston Sun Journal. “I think we all proved that they can’t do that. We will not be silenced.”

Given his group’s history of supporting racists and anti-Semites, such silence might be welcome. As an organization that revels in provocative antics, the college GOP should accept the blowback and quit whining.

The second incident involves a bill sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Rebecca Millett of Cape Elizabeth, who decided that free speech has become too pervasive online and must be restricted. Millett’s measure would ban “deepfake” videos within 60 days of an election.

Anyone who posted phony clips of politicians saying or doing stuff they never actually said or did would be thrown in prison and forced to view coverage of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins attempting to reconcile her statements about Donald Trump with her votes during the impeachment hearing. As Millett put it in testimony before a legislative committee, “Let them watch and listen until their eyes and ears melt.”

That last paragraph is the print equivalent of a deepfake. However, I wouldn’t be prosecuted under Millett’s legislation because it includes an exception for satire. And I contend I was not being (entirely) serious when I wrote that. But I am when I say this deepfake bill is unreasonable, unenforceable and unconstitutional.

If we made lying during political campaigns illegal, politicians would be forced to shut up. Or tell the truth. Neither is a practical substitute for the standard blather.

The real problem with Millett’s bill is that it would allow the government to decide what’s true or false. Keep in mind that some parts of our government think climate change is fake and that women won’t be harmed by restricting access to reproductive health care. Letting Luddites like that oversee enforcement of a deepfake law would threaten the tiny sliver of free speech we actually enjoy.

That wouldn’t be welcome news for everyone from hyperbolic college Republicans to hysterical liberals convinced an online video of Gov. Janet Mills naked in bed with Michelle Malkin would signal the collapse of democracy.

In the interests of free speech, both sides should put a sock in it.

You, however, are welcome to continue the conversation by emailing [email protected].

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