Politics & Other Mistakes: You can’t say that

6 mins read
Al Diamon

The trouble with the right to free speech is other people’s vocal cords. They insist on flapping them to utter obnoxious noises.

Also, other people’s computers, used to produce ridiculous postings. And let’s not forget other people’s fingers, which operate the aforementioned computers, light matches to burn American flags and flip us the bird when we politely suggest they conceal their ignorance by shutting their pie holes.

“Why they’ve got to go make these silly statements, I don’t know,” said a prominent Mainer during a radio appearance in late December. This person was referring to Democrats protesting the election of Donald Trump as president. But his comment could be interpreted more broadly, considering that the speaker is something of an expert concerning “silly statements.” He’s Paul LePage, Maine’s Republican governor and loudspeaker-equipped inflatable lawn ornament.

More proof that free speech is a nasty business.

Which may be why so many people in this state are trying to get rid of it.

In September in the liberal bastion of Portland, somebody used a wall set aside for graffiti to paint a portrait of LePage dressed in Ku Klux Klan garb. The city’s mayor immediately called for its removal. “I do not want it up there,” Ethan Strimling told the Press Herald. “It is not reflective of our values.”

Shortly afterwards, another artist altered the painting to show the governor in Mickey Mouse ears. Apparently, that did reflect Portland’s values, because Strimling said nothing further.

Last spring, an electronic sign on Main Street in Mexico (the town, not the place Trump wants to wall off) began displaying such messages as “Weed the People.com” and “Cannabis oil cures cancer.” That prompted town officials to send the property owners a letter that stopped just short of demanding the sign’s removal. “Reasonable people do not do something like that,” Town Manager John Madigan told the Sun Journal.

In Mexico, reasonable people are in short supply.

A South Portland High School student who wore a Trump “Make America Great Again” hat to school was harassed by two staffers.

An anti-abortion protester, who stood outside Planned Parenthood’s Portland office and shouted stuff about Jesus and dead babies, has been charged by the Maine Attorney General’s office with violating the state’s civil rights law.

The Maine Department of Corrections has, upon receiving legal advice, reluctantly stopped enforcing a rule that prohibited family members from posting online or publishing writings of prisoners.

But perhaps the weirdest recent attack on free speech comes from somebody who might be mistaken for a journalist.

In general, journalists are strongly in favor of the First Amendment and its guarantee of reporting unfettered by government. But George Smith has told me he doesn’t consider himself a journalist – even though he writes weekly columns for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, a blog for the Bangor Daily News and co-hosts a cable-access TV show.

In his December 14 column, Smith lists a few ways elections could be improved. Some of his ideas make sense: banning campaign signs on public property, making it illegal for Clean Election candidates to also run privately funded political action committees, getting rid of legislative term limits. But it’s Smith’s first suggestion that runs afoul of free speech.

He wants to let the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices (motto: Issuing Inconsequential Fines Since Sometime in the 1980s) “check the honesty of political ads.”

Smith goes on to say, “If they determine an ad is false, they should require the ad’s sponsor to immediately make a correction, using the same media that was used for the false ad. And the commission should issue a press release noting the inaccuracy of the ad.”

Only two problems with that. First, it’s unconstitutional for the government to tell political candidates (or anybody else) what they can say. Second, determining what’s false is nearly impossible. If candidate D calls candidate H “crooked,” how will the commissioners determine whether that’s a fact, a matter of opinion or a lie? There’s no objective way to do so.

Smith should stick to hunting and fishing, subjects about which he has some familiarity, and leave it to voters to sort out the messy blessings of free speech.

I’ll shut up now, and let you blather on at aldiamon@herniahill.net.

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