You Don’t Say

June 5, 2000

By Scot Lehigh at The Boston Globe

Free speech is devalued. Courts snub the First Amendment, politicians chill dissent, campuses stifle unpopular views. It’s time we speak up.

Boston City Councilor Michael Ross conceived the idea as a tribute to liberty: Designate a part of City Hall Plaza as a Speaker’s Corner where citizens can come to hold forth and be heard on the issues of the day.

London’s Hyde Park features just such a spot, where, on any given Sunday, activists, orators, and agitators can hold forth, and in the process add to the richness and texture of the city.

For Ross, son of a man who survived five years in Nazi concentration camps, a Speaker’s Corner would be a perfect addition for a city with Boston’s history.

”It’s a celebration of free speech,” says Ross. ”Boston and New England are the home of the American Revolution and I would argue we are the birthplace of dissent.

” That we may well be. Yet one would hardly know it today.

With alarming acquiescence, modern Massachusetts has slid into a culture of speech suppression, a place where political leaders chill debate by punishing dissenters and where cultural correctness too often trumps respect for an open, freewheeling civic dialogue.

From the political arena to college campuses to parades to TV talk shows, seemingly intelligent people regularly support abridgement of expression when they disagree with the message.

”This area is a hotbed for the politically correct suppression of free speech,” says Harvey Silverglate, a lawyer and civil libertarian. ”It is a First- Amendment nightmare.”

All of which makes Ross’s idea of a London-style Speaker’s Corner – passed as a resolution by the City Council and now under review by the Trust for City Hall Plaza – especially worth considering here, even knowing that some would use it to bore, offend, or infuriate those within earshot.

After all, the acid test of respect for the principle is how we react to speech or expression we find disagreeable, annoying, or obnoxious.

And that’s where Massachusetts falls painfully short. Whether it is in controversies such as the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which won the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court a unanimous rebuke from the US Supreme Court, or blatant attempts at intimidation, or efforts to stifle dissent on Beacon Hill and at City Hall, we too often treat free speech as a secondary value, easily sacrificed in the interests of civility or control, diversity or inclusion.

Meanwhile, on dozens of Massachusetts campuses, behavior and anti-harassment codes define potential offenses so broadly that one student’s right to free speech stops at the outer edge of another’s feelings.

”Massachusetts is probably the worst state when it comes to speech codes,” says Thor Halvorssen, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. ”There are more speech codes in the state of Massachusetts than in any three states in the South or the Midwest.”

Perhaps a repression that comes of unwavering moral certitude is a Boston birthright as well, for despite its reputation as a historical hotbed of dissent nationally, Boston has long punished those who go against the local grain.

That started with the Puritans, who came here to exercise religious freedom, and quickly constructed a theocracy less tolerant than the 17th- century England they had left.

They expelled antinomian Anne Hutchinson for heresy in 1637, hanged Mary Dyer on the Boston Common in 1660 for espousing her Quakerism, and put any number of nonbelieving Native Americans and would-be witches to the noose as well.

And though it was Boston’s boisterous voice that led the revolt against the British, it was also local son John Adams who, as president, approved the Alien and Sedition Acts to suppress dissent and curtail criticism of the government.

As late as 1797, theater of any kind was forbidden in Boston, and the tendency of 20th-century Boston to prohibit plays or books made ”banned in Boston” an infamous phrase.

Works as diverse as Eugene O`Neill’s ”The Iceman Cometh,” Edward Albee’s ”Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and William Burroughs’s ”Naked Lunch,” and the musical ”Hair” have all fun afoul of Boston’s censors.

Anyone who doubts the political permafrost that chills dissent in Massachusetts public life need only consider a few of the more egregious examples of how the political community deals with disagreement.

Take what happened to former Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, a Democrat, in October 1998, when he signaled his support for Republican gubernatorial nominee Paul Cellucci by sharing a beer at J. J. Foley’s, a South End pub. Organized labor threw up a picket outside. And certainly a respectful demonstration would have been appropriate. Instead, pickets subjected Flynn, a onetime labor favorite, his son Edward, and other attendees to a rain of abuse, intimidation, and threats the likes of which would have embarrassed a professional wrestler.

Or look at the political thuggery former congressman and Massachusetts Port Authority executive director Peter Blute experienced in January when he and WRKO radio talk show teammate Andy Moes had sport with Lieutenant Governor Jane Swift’s baby-sitting controversy.

In short order, Blute says, he received threatening calls from members of the Cellucci administration.

”They said there are a lot of things out there that we have got on you that will come out,” says Blute. ”They intimated they had some pictures of me with some woman. … I don’t know what they were talking about.”

Blute won’t name the callers, but says the message was crystal clear: Shut up or else. Was it a threat?

”No doubt about it,” Blute says.

That’s extraordinary. Still, on Beacon Hill, chilled speech is the rule, not the exception.

In a debate last month on overhauling House rules, Speaker Thomas M. Finneran offered a breathtaking denunciation of his critics, accusing them of ”an unabated stream of invective,” of ”calumnies,” ”libels,” ”slurs,” and ”slanders,” and of ”absolutely, unqualified, unconditional lies.” That outburst was far more vitriolic than any criticism directed the speaker’s way.

But consider what befell Representative Jim Marzilli, an Arlington Democrat and one of the most thoughtful and conscientious members of the House, after he proposed some rules changes in January 1999.

”Immediately after that, I was removed as vice chairman of the Committee on Counties and … my fairly large office was taken from me and I was reassigned to a small cubicle on the fourth floor,” Marzilli recalls. Nor was Marzilli the only reformer punished in that fashion.

It’s even worse at City Hall, where Mayor Thomas M. Menino fumes at those who dare challenge his plans or criticize his administration.

”Dissent and open discussion are not tolerated, period,” says one longtime observer of city government. ”The price you pay for disagreement is to risk incurring his fury – and maybe worse.”

Perhaps no one has suffered quite so much of the mayor’s impatience with dissent as Citywide Councilor Peggy Davis-Mullen, a possible future mayoral candidate. She and her supporters say they have regularly been bullied and threatened by members of the administration.

”Numerous people have been told that any outward support of a non-supporting city councilor or anti-Menino position and they will lose their job or any contact they have with city government,” says Mike Greene, president of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights Lobby and an ally of DavisMullen.

Time was, conservatives might censure speech as incendiary or seditious or dangerous, but liberals tended to believe that the best way to battle offensive speech was to expose it to the light of reasoned counterargument. But these days, the left is just as likely as the right to squelch nonconforming views.

That was US Senator John F. Kerry’s experience in March 1992, when he suggested the time had come to rethink some aspects of affirmative action. Kerry was subjected to a double-barreled barrage of denunciation designed less to counter his intellectual arguments than to stun him into silence.

The South Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade stands as a banner example of the troubling Boston tendency to lose sight of bedrock principles in the heat of topical issues. In 1994, when the Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group, or GLIB, went to court in an attempt to force its way into the parade, not only did many liberal opinion-makers side with the gay community, but the state’s highest court did as well, ruling that the traditional parade couldn’t proceed unless the gay contingent was allowed to march as an openly gay group. It took a unanimous verdict of the US Supreme Court to point out what should have been obvious: The South Boston Allied War Veterans Council had as clear a First Amendment right to control the message of their event as the gay community did to have a parade of its own.

One of the latest Boston speech controversies shows the same intolerance for upsetting points of view.

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, or GLAAD, has led the charge to pressure WCVB-TV (Channel 5) not to air a fall TV show featuring conservative advicetrix Laura Schlessinger because she has expressed antigay sentiments.

Now, there’s no doubt that some of what Schlessinger has said is offensive. Still, says Silverglate, gay activists have lost sight of an obvious point: Battle Schlessinger in a way that erodes the respect for free speech, and any group that’s outside the mainstream may ultimately suffer.

”They should be the last people encouraging consumer boycotts of speech, because if the respect for free speech erodes, their rights will be the first to go,” Silverglatesays. ”The number of folks in this country who would rather shut up GLAAD far exceeds the number of folks who want to shut up Laura Schlessinger.”

That’s a lesson people need to learn. And, actually, says John Roberts, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, it’s one that Massachusetts has proved itself amenable to learning. Although Boston’s gut reaction to disagreeable speech is often to censor it, says Roberts, ”once we get an opportunity to raise the issue of free speech, there is often an understanding of its importance.”

Which is why Councilor Ross’s idea is one Boston would do well to dedicate some civic space to. A Speaker’s Corner would give us a daily reminder of a right whose true value we keep forgetting.

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