Wednesday, March 12, 2014
STANDISH — The Town Council, spurred by angry e-mails from around the country, voted Thursday to condemn a sign posted recently at the Oak Hill General Store asking customers to bet on an assassination of President-elect Barack Obama.
Gov. John Baldacci issued his own statement Thursday condemning the sign and other post-election incidents in Maine.
''Nowhere in Maine do we accept or condone this despicable, hateful speech,'' the governor said. ''While recent incidents may have been isolated, they cannot be taken lightly. Every time we see hate and intolerance, we must loudly denounce it. To do otherwise hurts our entire community. Maine strongly stands together against intolerance in any form.''
Baldacci is expected to appear with other state and local officials at an anti-hate rally at 5 p.m. today at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. The rally is in response to several high-profile incidents in Maine considered by many to be part of a pattern of racially-motivated or threatening actions around the country since Obama's election.
A Gray-New Gloucester High School student was suspended after using racial slurs to criticize Obama. Small black cardboard figures were hung by nooses on Mount Desert Island. And, most recently, the Standish general store posted a sign asking customers to place $1 bets on the date of an Obama assassination and saying: ''Let's hope someone wins.''
The sign was described by an Associated Press reporter in an article last weekend about post-election racial incidents and threats of violence. And this week, Standish town officials received angry e-mail messages from around the country.
Town Council Chairman Wayne Newbegin said councilors felt the best way to respond to the sign was to exercise their own First Amendment right. ''We ask that people of good will speak up against this despicable act,'' he said.
Several residents stood up at the meeting to support the council's action.
Pamela Smith said a relative in North Carolina read about the Standish sign in The Guardian, a British newspaper.
''Standish is notorious around the world, or at least nationally,'' she said. ''Freedom of speech is one thing, but provoking violence I don't think is constitutionally protected.''
Kaitlyn Cunningham, a student at Saint Joseph's College, said she was glad the council took a stand. ''Our country should be moving forward, not backward.''
A couple of town residents also stood up to defend the store's owner, who closed the business this week and told his landlord he was going hunting. Whoever wrote the sign has a right to free speech -- even in bad taste -- and has not had a chance to provide all the facts, they said.
Stacy Bulgajewski said she knows the store's owner, Steve Collins, as a generous man who ''goes out on a limb for people.''
''I believe it's a joke in bad taste. You don't know if he wrote it or someone else wrote it,'' she said. ''I believe we're totally crucifying him, and he is a huge benefit to our community.''
Collins could not be reached Thursday.
Most of those who spoke said they were not condemning Collins but the sign itself. Councilors also were careful about accusations, meeting privately with their attorney before the vote and referring to ''alleged activity'' in the resolution.
Town officials heard about the sign last week from the news reporter who saw it, but it was removed by the time police arrived.
Outgoing Maine Rep. Gary Moore, R-Standish, did not attend the meeting Thursday but is a regular customer at the store.
Moore said Collins is a jokester who routinely has pools in which people wager $1 on who would win a football game or when the ice would melt in the lower bay of Sebago Lake. But he never saw politically or racially oriented betting pools, he said.
''It's always been good-humored stuff. It's never been a nasty, mean-spirited type of thing,'' Moore said.
He said Collins had not openly taken sides in politics, either, except that he is critical, in a humorous way, of government interference and politicians in general.
''Whenever I came into the store, he would holler out, 'Watch your wallets. Politician in the store.' It was sort of a theme,'' Moore said. ''You might say he has a bit of a twisted sense of humor. But he's a funny guy.''
Moore said he didn't see the Obama sign, but that, ''I don't think there's any humor there ... If it happened as described, then a full confrontation of that sort of thing is totally appropriate.''
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:
click image to enlarge