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Without Freedom of Speech, I Might Be in the Swamp: Attacks on Free Speech in Kennebunkport, Maine

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Kennebunkport is a vacation home of the Bushes and the place where many of America’s wealthy like to “recreate as they wish,” as George HW Bush said in 1990 while he prepared to send the US military into Iraq. It is now also a battleground over free speech. In the past week, the electorate has voted to charge groups holding rallies and other assemblies insurance fees. In addition, the new law (which is already being challenged in the courts) removes the ability to issue permits for gatherings from the Police Department to the much more politicized Board of Selectmen. The town insists that the intention is not to stifle political protest, but most observers feel otherwise. Indeed, the timing is suspicious in that the law was first suggested after several thousand people protested the war in Iraq and attacks on civil liberties this past August.

This law is quite similar to one that the city of Burlington, VT tried to pass in 2006. That law was also presented to the public as an attempt to insure the public safety, yet was aimed at stifling spontaneous political protest. After weeks of protest from locals and others, the law was quietly rejected by the Burlington City Council. Another similar law in Augusta, ME was struck down by the courts.

The problem with these laws is that they pretend to be fair-minded and in the public interest when in fact they are attempts to charge people money for the constitutionally guaranteed right to peaceably assemble. Because virtually any US citizen would oppose an outright ban on political protest, the authorities must constantly look for other ways to limit and control such demonstrations. By appealing to the public’s fears and desire for a safe environment, local governments can effectively limit protests to those willing and able to pay fees the community chooses to charge for public assemblies. This naturally leaves out most groups opposed to war and the curtailing of civil liberties.

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In another attack on the right of free expression in Kennebunkport, artist G. Bud Swenson was ordered to remove some workss of his from a library art display because they featured caricatures of George Bush and Dick Cheney. The cancellation of the show was related to complaints by an unnamed patron. The first complaint had to do with the fact that the artist G. Bud Swenson used discarded and torn flags in his show. According to the complaint, this constituted defacement of the flag, which is a federal offense. The Library’s Board of trustees took the complaint in mind, but gave the go-ahead for the show. The second complaint was of apparently of a similar nature. In addition, the complainant expressed concern that the show was inappropriate for youngsters that often use the room where the art is hung as if young people should not have ideas opposed to the prevailing ethic of war and nationalism presented to them.

However, not even the Library’s trustees could handle the portraits of Cheney and Bush, with the head of the trustees calling them "excessively inflammatory" and "crossed the bounds of acceptable community standards." One wonders if this statement would have been made in a community less beholden to the Bush family. This writer's question is this: since when is caricaturing a public official crossing the so-called bounds of acceptable community standards? As of this writing, the two portraits are no longer hanging and two blank spaces exist where the artist had placed them. There are some forums scheduled to discuss the show and the issues it has raised. In addition, the trustees meet soon to decide whether or not the show will remain at all.

These two attacks on the public's opposition to George Bush and his administration make one wonder how thick-skinned Mr. Bush really is. Furthermore, they once again raise the question as to whether or not Mr. Bush and his supporters truly understand the meaning of the word democracy that they bandy about so freely when discussing other nations and their plans for them.

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Ron Jacobs is a writer, library worker and anti-imperialist. He is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American (more...)

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