This article was originally published in the Portland Press Herald
The First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech is under attack in Maine. The attackers include Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, the editorial page editors of Maine’s largest daily newspapers, the Maine chapters of the League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union, and Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Rep. Chellie Pingree.
Mills is a serial abuser of the First Amendment. In 2015 she chose to prosecute pro-life protesters outside Planned Parenthood in Portland for allegedly speaking too loudly. Despite being clearly told by a Barack Obama-appointed U.S. district judge that this is protected speech, she persists, arguing that the government may indeed abridge political speech.
In 2016, Mills joined a partisan coalition of state attorneys general investigating Exxon and climate change “deniers” for “fraud.” The investigation started with a memo that protected the attorneys general from Freedom of Information requests and was followed by broad subpoenas to several prominent think tanks. Exxon has countersued for violation of their First Amendment rights. The investigation is clearly designed to suppress speech that Mills opposes, and to aid her in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. The ACLU’s Maine chapter saw nothing at all problematic with this behavior.
In 2010 Citizens United sent progressives into orbit when it guaranteed protected political speech rights of unions and corporations. King, Pingree and the League of Women Voters haven’t had anything positive to say about Citizens United, and Collins was a strong supporter of the challenged McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation.
The opposition of Maine’s legacy media editors to free speech surfaced as a consequence of a Feb. 25 editorial in the Portland Press Herald that took the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics to task for declining to investigate Maine Republican Party Executive Director Jason Savage and his anonymous ownership of and work on the Maine Examiner, a news website that published material deemed harmful to a progressive Lewiston mayoral candidate. I posted this comment under the editorial online and all hell broke loose:
“jreisman: Here’s an alternative view- the PPH. KJ, BDN and Maine Public are essentially mouthpieces for the Democrats and the left. Campaign Finance and ethics ‘regulation’ are progressive attacks on protected political speech.
“The left has lost their monopoly on the narrative, and their ability to control/censor speech of those they disagree with has been compromised. This editorial is the consequence.
“What contempt for the public! Mainers and Americans can make their own decisions without direction from media progressives.”
On Feb. 28, the editorial page editors of Maine’s three largest dailies appeared on Maine Public Radio’s “Maine Calling” for their monthly news roundup and commentary. I sent the following email to the panel: “Editorial in PPH criticizes Maine Ethics Commission for declining to investigate Jason Savage/Maine Examiner. No mention of First Amendment/ Citizens United guarantee of protected political speech- how come?”
Their response (starting at 31:30 of Maine Public’s recording) is chilling. Greg Kesich of the Press Herald struggles to defend the lack of reference to protected political speech, recognizing First Amendment rights but noting problems with fake news, lack of accountability and dishonesty. The Bangor Daily News’ Susan Young and Ben Bragdon of the Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel pipe up about the need to update rules in the age of social media and its low set-up costs, suggesting that only legacy newspapers are “legitimate” and we need more “good” news consumers. Not one editor thought it necessary to defend the First Amendment; all saw the “need” to abridge political speech.
I discovered I had been temporarily banned from the Press Herald comment section a few days later. Whether it was before or after the “Maine Calling” show, only the Press Herald knows.
Two Maine pundits have since chimed in. Amy Fried blogged that fake news is a public mental health hazard, setting the stage for the need to regulate political speech for the public good. Al Diamon defended the First Amendment, declaring that “political hacks have the same rights as everyone else to operate propaganda sites, even if, like Savage, they’re the sorts of cowards who do so anonymously. Nowhere in the Constitution’s First Amendment does it require the exercise of free speech to be conducted ethically.”
Free speech is under attack nationally from the left and also from President Trump. College campuses have a predilection for suppressing conservative speech in the name of community and public health that University of Maine Professor Fried has channeled. Many believe that “hate speech” as defined by the Southern Poverty Law Center is not protected speech. Progressives since Woodrow Wilson have argued that the Constitution is a barrier to “progress” and needs to be changed. In the past, the press, the academy and civil rights groups defended the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of speech and religion. Today, not so much.