Court nullifies Lewiston rally restriction

Blethen Maine Newspapers, Jan. 11, 2003
By SELENA RICKS, Blethen Maine Newspapers 

LEWISTON — The Maine Civil Liberties Union on Friday successfully blocked one of the restrictions officials were planning to place on participants in today’s race-related rallies.

Police and rally organizers had said no signs containing graphic or obscene images or words would be allowed at either the neo-Nazi meeting on the outskirts of the city or the pro-diversity counterrally at Bates College.

But U.S. District Court Judge D. Brock Hornby ruled that the restrictions on signs “shall not prohibit ‘graphic’ images or words unless they are obscene.”

Dorcas Gilpatrick, associate director of the MCLU and the plaintiff in Friday’s complaint, said the word “graphic” is too vague and could cause officials to impede people’s free-speech rights. “Police will have to make sure (restrictions on signs meet) constitutional standards,” she said. “The only signs that could be prohibited are obscene signs or any signs that seriously incited people to violence.”

Sgt. Michael McGonagle, spokesman for the Lewiston Police Department, said the 150-plus police officers from Lewiston and other areas on duty tomorrow will be briefed on Hornby’s order when they meet this morning to plan for the rallies.

“We want to give people the right to say what they want to say, but also make sure people are safe,” he said.

McGonagle said the obscenity of a sign will be open to police interpretation. “We obviously don’t want a riot to break out,” he said. “If somebody has something that could create a riot, we’ll take close a look at it.”

Also Friday, the Society of Professional Journalists issued a statement to Lewiston Police Chief William Welch protesting several of the restrictions placed on people planning to attend the rallies, including those on the signs.

“It did seem in their responsible efforts to protect the public, safety officials in Lewiston are going too far,” said the society’s president, Robert Leger. “If white supremacists want to put up signs using epithets, that’s their right. We might hate it, but under the Constitution, people have the right to express their opinions.”

Leger, editorial page editor at the Springfield News-Leader in Missouri, said the Society of Professional Journalists works to protect the free speech rights of all people, not just journalists, and government has no place in passing judgment on what is an appropriate expression of thought.

“There’s always the possibility that things will get out of hand,” he said of today’s rallies. “But I don’t think deciding what signs can go up is the right way to do it.”

Police do still plan to place other restrictions on the rally participants.

No weapons or items that could be used as weapons will be allowed at either event. The ban includes cameras, video recorders, sound recorders, food, water bottles, gymnasium bags and handbags.

Picket signs will be prohibited because the sticks have been used as weapons at other rallies. Signs must be made of cardboard or cloth and carried by hand.

Police and security workers will use metal detectors to screen people at both events, and random searches are possible.

Today’s events are expected to draw thousands of people into Lewiston, although officials are hoping that the frigid weather expected for today will deter people from gathering outside. Both rallies are scheduled to run from 1 to 3 p.m.

A neo-Nazi group, the World Church of the Creator, is set to meet at a city-owned building next to the Maine Army National Guard Armory on the Alfred Plourde Parkway, near Maine Turnpike Exit 13.

The meeting is expected to take place even though the featured speaker, group leader Matthew Hale of East Peoria, Ill., was arrested Wednesday on charges that he tried to get someone to murder the federal judge in a trademark lawsuit over the group’s name. Another leader, Jon Fox, is expected to deliver Hale’s intended speech, “The Invasion of Maine by Somalis and How We Can Stop It.”

Since February 2001, more than 1,100 Somalis have moved to Lewiston, a mostly Franco-American, Roman Catholic community of 36,000. Hale scheduled the meeting in Lewiston after Mayor Laurier Raymond asked Somalis to stop moving to the city because it was “maxed-out financially, physically and emotionally.”

The racist meeting will take place in a culinary-arts classroom that holds about 40 people. Participants will be allowed to enter the building after 1 p.m. A limited number of media representatives will be allowed in the room.

The Many & One Coalition is organizing a pro-diversity rally that will take place at Bates College’s Merrill Gymnasium, which can hold up to 3,000 people. Speakers expected to attend include Gov. John Baldacci, Maine Attorney General G. Steven Rowe, former Lewiston Mayor John Jenkins and former Mayor Kaileigh Tara. Mayor Laurier Raymond is away on vacation in Florida and won’t attend.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday January 12, 2003.
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