“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
– George Orwell, original preface to “Animal Farm”
The Portland City Council voted unanimously Monday to approve an ordinance that tells Mr. Orwell where to put his pious declarations about vacuous concepts such as “liberty.”
It offers the same message to the Founders, who thought freedom of speech vital enough to protect it in the First Amendment.
However, we are now told, such foolish vaporings should only apply as long as no one objects to them.
Such objectors, who may be made “uncomfortable,” “feel bad” or even claim to be “intimidated” by others’ speech, now have a veto over their rights.
Such is the case in Portland, where for about 18 months, a dozen or so pro-life advocates have lined a Congress Street sidewalk outside the local offices of Planned Parenthood and held signs and directed comments at that facility’s staff and clients.
If, as some patrons and staff claim, such comments are personally condemnatory, I would join in criticizing them. One does not support a moral cause by acting in an immoral manner.
On the other hand, if it is wrong to kill an innocent baby in its mother’s womb, it is wrong no matter who says what about it.
And not enough attention has been paid to the organization they are protesting, because Planned Parenthood in America:
• Is the nation’s largest abortion provider: In the 2011 fiscal year, it says it performed 333,964 abortions, or one abortion every 94 seconds, totaling more than a third of all “terminations” performed in the United States.
• Claims such procedures amount to only “3 percent” of its activities: But some who are familiar with its procedures, including former clinic director Abby Johnson of Texas, say that it manipulates numbers to minimize what abortion adds to the group’s bottom line.
• Operates an extremely lucrative enterprise: Its assets total more than $1.2 billion; its CEO, Cecile Richards, makes nearly $400,000 a year.
• And soaks in taxpayer subsidies: Last year, the group took in $542 million in state and federal grants, even as the sequester was cutting funding for government activities such as the National Park Service, aid to disabled children and the military.
But let’s return to “buffer zones.” Portland has established a 39-foot exclusionary zone around the organization’s office, forcing protesters across the street and preventing conversations with people entering the building.
However, as the Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby pointed out in a Nov. 10 column, the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to take up McCullen v. Coakley, a Massachusetts suit challenging that state’s 35-foot exclusionary zones.
It is, as Jacoby noted, “the strictest such law in the nation. Violators can be punished with up to 30 months in prison and fines of up to $30,000.”
That isn’t the only high court involvement with this issue. On Tuesday, justices refused on a 5-4 vote to block a Texas law requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.
The law was based on a Pennsylvania measure enacted after Dr. Kermit Gosnell of Philadelphia was convicted of murdering three babies and involuntary manslaughter in the death of a client.
Abortion supporters said the Texas law would close a third of that state’s abortion facilities.
But shouldn’t the fact that such sites are obviously staffed by “providers” who lack the qualifications to have clients admitted for hospital care be a more important public concern?
Regarding the protesters, many laws apply to speech-related crimes such as slander, libel and the famous “falsely shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.”
Still, laws that block protesters from having a civil conversation with another person on a public sidewalk, while letting clinic staffers speak with whomever they want in the same place, privilege pro-abortion speech and penalize its opposite. That would have driven the Founders bonkers.
As Jacoby said, “A lot of people don’t want to hear that abortion is wrong, or to be confronted with images of babies in the womb, or to be reminded that ‘choice’ is a euphemism for the destruction of human life. Many Americans may find such messages alarming, outrageous, or upsetting, especially when they are directed at girls or women going to get an abortion.”
And because they don’t want to hear it, they use the power of government against their opponents.
But, Jacoby adds, “the First Amendment wasn’t written to shield citizens in public spaces from unpopular or distressing speech. It was written to shield unpopular or distressing speech from being suppressed in public spaces.”
Right now, Portland can do what it wants. Sometime next year, though, we may discover that what it wants to do isn’t what the Constitution says it is allowed to do.
M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at: