Politics & Other Mistakes: The right to shut up

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In Maine, you have a constitutional right to free speech – up until you actually say something. After that, things get kinda squishy.

Let’s suppose that you decided to take an unpopular stand on an issue of statewide importance. After careful consideration, you posted an online rant claiming that Moxie, the official state soft drink, tastes like a mixture of battery acid and the runoff from legislative restrooms.

Al DiamonEven though that’s true, you still might face some serious blowback. You could be kidnapped by goons, your property seized, your children given away to strangers, and your dog put down. But your right to say what you said wouldn’t be questioned. Except for being water-boarded by state troopers using liter bottles of Moxie.

That’s clearly different from the way things are done in a repressive regime like Russia, where they’d use vodka.

The most recent example of Maine’s tolerant attitude toward controversial speech occurred in February, when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals purchased a couple of billboards at the Portland International Jetport that read “Save the whales. Don’t eat fish.”

As with most PETA protests, this one was as attention-grabbing as it was nonsensical. Extensive news coverage boosted the number of people who became aware of this campaign from a few dozen to thousands. The reaction from elected officials representing coastal communities with sizable numbers of fishing boats brought it to the attention of many more.

Among the first to respond was Democratic state Rep. Genevieve McDonald of Deer Isle, who tweeted, “This sign is appalling in its inaccuracy and absurdity. Do better. Don’t take money from advertisers who are eager to openly illustrate their ignorance.”

I suppose that means the airport will no longer be able to accept ads from drug companies, the oil industry, and Moxie.

Let me be clear. There was nothing wrong with McDonald’s reaction. She has every right to express her outrage about anything that threatens the livelihood of her constituents. But the protesting didn’t stop there. A day or so later, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills joined the fun.

Mills sent a letter to the Jetport manager requesting that the signs be removed because the message “insults hardworking Maine people” and “undermines a vital and iconic sector of our state’s economy.”

This is a whole different level than McDonald’s protest. Mills oversees state transportation funding that could potentially flow to the Jetport. Unless she’s happy about whatever’s being advertised on its walls, there’s a real possibility of financial consequences. The threat doesn’t have to be explicit (it wasn’t), it just has to be hinted at with all the subtlety at the disposal of a powerful chief executive.

The Jetport allowed the posters to remain in place for a few more days until the advertising contract ran out, but the long-term consequences of this controversy remain to be seen.

This was hardly an isolated incident of governmental meddling in free speech. In Bangor last year, it took a ruling from the city’s Board of Ethics to clarify that city councilors were allowed to express political opinions.

In Lewiston, Bates College officials called the cops after someone distributed brochures criticizing Israel for attacks on Palestinians.

In the 2021 legislative session, a bill was introduced that would have dictated how the news media covered criminal cases and banned the use of mug shots in such stories. It was defeated, but not before earning support from some legislators who ought to know better.

After the 2020 election, signs and flags sprouted on the properties of supporters of the losing presidential candidate, particularly in the state’s conservative 2nd Congressional District, suggesting in fluent Anglo-Saxon that they wished to perform a sexual act on the winner. Offended parties called police and municipal officials demanding they take action, even though there’s no law against being obnoxious.

For which, I’m thankful.

All these incidents indicate that free speech works pretty well until some idiot tries to exercise his or her right to it. Then that brings out the petty autocrat in the rest of us.

If you don’t like what I have to say, show your moxie by emailing [email protected].