AUGUSTA — Despite concerns expressed about a recent demonstration by a small group of masked neo-Nazis, unregulated murals in the public view and swastikas painted by vandals on city property, city officials believe local ordinances, when combined with enforcement of existing state law, are adequate to ensure the public’s safety without infringing on First Amendment rights to free speech.

Asked by city councilors to ponder what forms of expression the city can regulate, as a public body, without limiting anyone’s First Amendment rights to free speech, the city’s attorney Stephen Langsdorf said even speech that nearly everyone finds repulsive can be difficult to regulate, as long as it falls short of “fighting words” aimed at specific people or groups.

“I think most people, yes we’d prefer to live in a world where we don’t have to see people expressing their First Amendment rights in ways most everyone finds repulsive, but most of us get (that) freedom to be able to express ourselves in every other way means we probably shouldn’t be taking unusual measures just to squelch the stuff we totally and completely disagree with,” Langsdorf said. “And it’d be shaky regulatory ground anyway.”

Councilors’ request of Langsdorf to ponder regulation of what could be considered free speech was initially prompted by a building owner’s concerns about the city’s lack of regulation of murals on the walls of buildings in local historic districts, including in the downtown area.

But the concern over those issues soon escalated, when, just days after councilors had asked Langsdorf to look into whether and how the city might regulate murals and other expressions in the public view, a small group of neo-Nazis demonstrated in Augusta.  The group of about 20 masked marchers carried a banner which stated “Keep New England White,” and reportedly gave Nazi salutes and marched from Memorial Circle to the State House.

Langsdorf said recently passed state legislation, LD 868, sponsored by Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, expanded the Maine Civil Rights Act to make some conduct and speech illegal if it is so offensive, and targets a specific group or individual, that it makes that group or individual likely to be in fear and feel the need to fight back and thus cause a breach of peace.


He said the city could consider adopting a similar ordinance. But councilors declined to pursue local regulations at their Sept. 28 meeting, saying the city could simply enforce the provisions of LD 868 as state law.

Ward 3 City Councilor Michael Michaud said it may be best to ignore those who say offensive things, much like ignoring a bully who he said will go away without an audience. He mocked the neo-Nazis for wearing masks during their march, saying if you have a statement to make, you should not be afraid to identify yourself as you make your stand.

“Any human being on the face of the earth that thinks he or she is better than anybody else is really, really, not thinking straight,” Michaud said. “We all understand that, and 99.99% of the population of the world runs on that. But there’s a few folks that don’t think that way and it’s sad for them to do that. I just think the First Amendment is one of the most precious things we have, we can go out and we can say what we feel, and protest, and all these other things. But again, when groups like this come around, they’re not valued by anybody. So let them have their little thing, let them mask up if they don’t want anybody to know who they are. It’s unfortunate, so why would you take anybody wearing a mask very seriously, unless it’s Halloween.”

Langsdorf said one thing the city could do is ban people from demonstrating, or doing anything else, on the inner parts of the city’s two traffic circles, which he said the city could regulate as a safety issue, not based on the content of what any demonstrators might say in those prominent spots.

However, Jared Mills, police chief and assistant city manager, said existing state law already bans anyone from going onto the inside, center part of the traffic circles. He said there are no crosswalks going to the inside of the circles, which regularly have more traffic crashes than any other sites in the state, so no one should be gathering there.

“It is a danger and we do have, at times, folks who try to congregate in the middle of the rotary and we feel comfortable with our state laws that are in place — obstructing a public way, things like that,” Mills said. “We regulate it, absolutely.”

Langsdorf advised against the city trying to regulate murals on private property but within the public view. He said there already are laws in place restricting obscenity.

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