Thursday, October 25, 2007

Free Speech, Ours...Not Yours

Still gulping their political pain pills, The Mass Family Institute (MFI) keeps its focus on afflicting others. Since June when they lost their two-plus year crusade to stop same-sex marriage here, they have been relentless in reframing themselves.

Along the way to their goals of promoting sexual abstinence, keeping kids safe on the internet, and pushing for enforcement of statutory rape laws, MFI is perfectly happy to jettison such inconveniences as free speech — for progressives and liberal sorts. For their own demonstrations, rallies, and sidewalk protests, however, they claim absolute rights to declaim, fulminate and verbally accost others.

They are, if you pardon the expression, snugly in bed with anti-women's rights organizations and protesters. Aborting inviable fetuses is murder in their loaded lingo.

Pushing All Limits

Consider two recent matters — related claims in the Cirignano trial in Worcester last week and a call to action on a Massachusetts Senate bill that would keep protesters from getting too close to women entering Planned Parenthood clinics. Free speech was the pivot for both.

In the trial, the defense position asserted an absolute right of free speech to MFI for its anti-SSM rally. That is, their permits (assembly and sound) to the city hall plaza gave them total control to that area. This meant that anyone with an opposing view had to stay out of the designated rally area. The defense further held that this included the right "to use reasonable force" to remove anyone speaking or carrying a sign with a different viewpoint...even if they did not ask nearby police to help.

Moreover, in heavy-handed efforts to intimidate the woman whom Cirignano pushed across the plaza and who ended up injured, the permit holder for MFI, Shari Worthington, filed a complaint against her for disrupting the rally. Even though she had known since April that the trial was coming up, Worthington waited until just over two weeks before the trial to file. In her blog, she openly bragged that "But this causes a big problem for Loy. If she testifies against Larry on Oct. 16, she risks incriminating herself in a trial against her!"

Free speech...not yours.

That complaint comes before a judge magistrate next Monday. It seems without merit and is unlikely to lead to any charges.

Too Clever by Half

Worthington, who refers to herself on her blog in the third person, was more involved in this than just being the front woman for MFI at the rally. She and Cirignano worked together for two years and she was a sort of witness at his trial. Not only did she not see the incident, but she was so wrapped up in her attempts at cleverness, that she came off as duplicitous. She seemed to have missed the part of her oath about "whole truth and nothing but the truth."

For example, on her closeness to Cirignano, she couldn't say they were buddies. Rather "I worked with him through Catholic Citizenship, but we do not socialize." Likewise, when the prosecutor asked whether she "kept on top of the case," rather than answer, she dissembled with, "I'm not sure what you mean." When pressed about whether she had blogged about it and kept up it, she said, "Roughly, yes."

Moreover, her husband provided police with a video almost entirely of the protesters' separate area. As a result of apparently trying to get the pro-equality folks doing something they could point to later, they missed the incident where Cirignano pushed Loy. As a result, conflicting witnesses had various accounts of how hard he pushed her. When the prosecutor asked her how she could deliver the video to police and never mention that she was a witness or offer her account, she was at her most disingenuous. She said as justification that the investigating officer "didn't ask me for any (details)."

The Lord's Business

No MFI tale can avoid irony. One passing twinge of it came at the Cirignano trial. The defense attorney, Michael Gilleran, first repeatedly conflated that political action of the campaign with "doing the work of the Catholic Church." Neither the prosecutor nor the judge called him on that. Then during the motions portion before jury selection, Gilleran capsulized the amendment drive as trying to "overturn Goodridge."

I found it fascinating to hear someone supporting the anti-SSM side admit that. Everyone related to MFI's campaign carefully avoided that before and during the drive because that aim would specifically violate our commonwealth's constitution. Even our then Attorney General Tom Reilly ruled that the obvious was not the real by declaring that the amendment would only stop SSM going forward, so it wasn't really, not really, overturning the court decision.

35 Feet

Yesterday was another trumpet call to action by MFI on a different matter. Yet this too was about free speech, theirs, not everyone's. In an email alert, MFI asked for folk to flood the House calling for no support of Senate 1353, which it called "a violation of the First Amendment rights of these sidewalk counselors who calmly attempt to give women considering abortion information to help them choose life...'This infringes on the prolifers' ability to reach out to women in crisis who need vital information,' said Marie Sturgis, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Life. 'These are prayerful people who want to help in some way.'"

You may insert your own sound of derision here. If you have been around the screaming, threatening gangs of them near a reproductive clinic, you know what they are about and how they abuse the concept of free speech. Whether a woman arrives for a birth-control checkup, an abortion, or even to discuss keeping a surprise baby in the works, the wails and accusations of "Murder!" are not civilized or humane.

Analogy alert: Over at BMG, Bob promoted a post by ShillelaghLaw that notes the Mass Citizens for Life and MFI decry Senate Bill 1353, which passed yesterday. If a similar bill passes the House, it would define and expand the buffer zone around Planned Parenthood and similar reproductive clinics from 18 feet to 35 feet. It also provides for the first time specificity by including "a radius of thirty-five feet of any portion of an entrance to, exit from, or driveway". There have been no successful prosecutions of threatening screechers and rosary rattlers in large part because of the vagueness of the existing Chapter 266, Section 120E.

Safeguarding Rights

What we end up with is surely a portent of MFI and related groups' attacks on your free speech and mine. They shameless use the Hurley decision and extreme interpretations of laws two ways. They claim absolute free speech, including those rights to "reasonable force" to physically move protesters. At the same time, they are looking for reinforced limits on the rights of others to protest or even to display a sign with a differing viewpoint.

Left, right or just special interest, no one should be able to stifle others. Nearly all of us grew up with a strong belief in our First Amendment rights to whisper or rant publicly about matters important to us. In this era of a sharp right turn in the U.S. Supreme Court, we have to watch MFI and their ilk.

Hurley was only to let a parade permit holder limit who could march in a private parade on public streets. Nothing gives protection to act as police officers and decide whom to roust and eject.

Senate Bill 1353 was not a reaction to Hurley, but it might have that effect. When extreme ideologues show that they are willing to abuse free speech to attain their political goals, they need legal limits. The specificity in this bill that MFI so bemoans is necessary in that case and likely in many related ones.

To expand to a larger, differing analogy, this effect has ripples like the 1982 Tylenol poisoning. Some murderous type put cyanide in pain pills and now we have sealed everything. Previously, we opened tablet bottles or jars of mayonnaise without the protective layers and seals. We may have to revisit many state laws to keep free speech for all.

Now I expect that we'll see more groups citing or trying to stretch case law and statutes to get around our Bill of Rights. That will require state and federal tweaks or new laws to restore our understanding of free speech and other previously commonly understood principles.

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