Boston Stood for Suppression of Free Speech and Free Press

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“If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

— Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., U.S. Supreme Court justice

“We are so concerned to flatter the majority that we lose sight of how very often it is necessary, in order to preserve freedom for the minority, let alone for the individual, to face that majority down.”

— William F. Buckley Jr., founder of National Review magazine

Out in the grape-growing town of Delano, California, during a famous exchange captured on grainy color film at a public hearing in 1966, Senator Robert F. Kennedy questioned Kern County Sheriff Leroy Galyen about labor strife affecting migrant farm workers and the arrests of 44 strikers and priests. Kennedy asked the sheriff: “How can you go arrest somebody if they haven’t violated the law?” Galyen responded: They’re ready [emphasis added] to violate the law.” Likewise, Boston public officials in advance of and during this past Saturday’s “Free Speech Rally” suppressed freedom of speech because speakers were ready to say something insensitive, perhaps even hateful. And local media condoned it.

Rally organizers were not ready to violate the law. In fact, all they intended was to exercise and express their constitutionally protected freedoms. Like free speech.

Those freedoms, however, were ultimately too much too bear for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Boston Police Commissioner William Evans, and 40,000 so-called counter protestors. (With impossible irony, they protested 40 “free speech” advocates, barricaded like animals, on a bandstand on Boston Common.)

Prior to the free speech rally Mayor Walsh stoked the counter protest and condemned the group that was wrongly — and loudly — reported by media as being sympathizers with white supremacists. Among those guilty-by-false-association was John Medlar, who held the permit for Boston Free Speech Coalition, and is its spokesman.

Medlar, visually and vocally harmless, appeared on the WGBH program Morning Edition a day before the rally, dispelling what he called “misinformation about what we actually stand for.” He said, “If people are bringing overtly white supremacist symbols like swastikas or KKK flags or using the Nazi salute, we will disassociate ourselves from them.” Days in advance of the event the Boston Coalition rejected violence. It wrote on its Facebook page that the group was strictly about free speech: “We denounce the politics of supremacy and violence.” (The Boston rally was planned well in advance of the Charlottesville, Virginia protests.) But these assurances mattered little to Boston officials.

America is itself a free speech zone but the free speech advocates nonetheless had to obtain a permit for free speech, which was granted by the city with severe restrictions. A maximum of 100 people would be permitted entry (with no backpacks). Mayor Walsh went to the safe harbor of MSNBC four days before the rally and further articulated the restrictions (“no signs” and “no sound”). He also said he was “concerned with the message.”

Boston is subjective and selective when granting permits. Conservative-tinged groups like the Tea Party and Boston Free Speech must obtain them but progressive-affiliated groups like Occupy Boston and counter-free speech groups are, incredibly, exempt from Boston’s high-minded indignation and moral preening. An example of Boston’s non-neutral public neutrality.

Mayor Walsh urged the public to stay away from the rally — lest they be offended — and he consulted with Southern Poverty Law Center for guidance on how to handle events involving white supremacists. He claimed it would be frustrating that vendors would lose business just “for five people to be able to spew hate.” And one commentator on Boston television reminded viewers, “there is no freedom of speech to incite violence.”

So what hateful speech (“the message”) was spoken on Saturday to incite violence?

No one knew.

Not only did Boston city officials suppress the expression of free speech but they also silenced dissemination of the content of that speech.

A Boston police directive, issued Thursday afternoon, read: “NO media personnel will be allowed inside the barricaded area around the Bandstand.” Additionally, media members were expected to “remain mobile and refrain from long term stationary reporting which may incite and attract participants.” What happened to that other vital First Amendment freedom? Like freedom of the press?

Boston media had to follow the official directive like obedient puppies, bowing to the fear-driven direction of their master, Mayor Walsh, who surely must have approved the police order. He therefore effectively imposed a journalistic blackout. And journalists accepted it.

Only in Boston can a hyper-progressive administration suppress a mostly progressive media into such pathetic submission. The order should have been vigorously challenged. Where was the outrage by media executives? How could Boston media accurately report a local event making national headlines without finding out the truth behind it? Instead, on Saturday, no mainstream Boston media could seek the whole truth.

That did not prevent wall-to-wall coverage — fake news? — of the unofficially sanctioned, media-ready counter-rallies. The mayor actually walked with counter protesters, who were unfettered by free speech restrictions Many interviews with counter protestors were broadcast (involving, at times, offensive background free speech, hateful signs, and backpacks). But the media were prevented from engaging with the free speech participants. One television commentator on Boston’s Fox 25, wrongly declared the station was there to “cover every angle.” Except one critical angle: What the free speech speakers were saying and doing. (No wonder conservatives rightly sense a left-leaning media bias.)

As a consequence, the public had to rely upon a YouTube video posted by a participant, recorded on the bandstand. That video showed no hateful speech (even if there were, that is constitutionally protected speech). And among their terrifying signs: “Black Lives Do Matter.”

The mayor, acting as if he had victoriously evacuated from Dunkirk, tweeted out: “Boston stood for peace and love, not bigotry and hate.” Except for several counter-protester bullies who harassed journalists, taunted and assaulted police (“Stupid black bitch, you’re supposed to be on our side”), and abused a woman holding an American flag. And responding to charges that some speakers were denied admittance, Commissioner Evans said at the post-rally press conference, “That’s a good thing because their message isn’t what we want to hear.” This is their close-minded, homogeneously-diverse, yet happy and harmonious, progressive Boston.

A post-mortem editorial in The Boston Globe, two days after the rallies, finally asked, “Why was media restricted from the bandstand?” Sarah Betancourt, writing for Columbia Journalism Review, raised important First Amendment concerns. She concluded that Boston officials “failed at protecting the media’s right to cover a newsworthy event.” She added that, “Journalists were blocked from witnessing and reporting on the very reason for the massive crowds.”   

In 1860, nearly one hundred years before Senator Bobby Kennedy’s questioning of Sheriff Galyen, Frederick Douglass, the eminent African-American human rights leader, delivered “A Plea for Free Speech in Boston.” Douglass thought that the principle of free speech was “an accomplished fact.” He said, “There can be no right of speech where any man, however lifted up, or however humble, however young, or however old, is overawed by force, and compelled to suppress his honest sentiments. Equally clear is the right to hear. To suppress free speech is a double wrong.”

But the “mortifying and disgraceful fact,” Douglass stingingly observed then, “stares us in the face, that though Faneuil Hall and Bunker Hill Monument stand, freedom of expression is struck down. No lengthy detail of facts is needed.” The same must be said of Boston in 2017.

James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer and former columnist with The Cape Cod Times. His work has also appeared in The Providence Journal, and