There’s a Christian ministry in Bangor, Maine — the Mansion Church — that goes around public spaces and uses colored chalk to leave nasty messages about how gay people must “repent,” how they’re “sinners,” how they’ll burn in Hell, etc.
Scott Hall is a local activist who’s made it his mission to erase that hate speech wherever he sees it. He’s been doing it for years. But on Friday, two cops — Officers Jarid Leonard and Ryan Jones — stopped him in Pickering Square (a public area) and issued a no-trespassing order, banning him from stepping foot there for a full year.
I repeat: They banned him from a public space for a year for erasing hate speech… while letting the hateful-message-writer fully off the hook.
And to be clear, the Christian had every right to leave “biblical” messages where he did. Bangor has a policy permitting such messages. What makes no sense is why Hall was punished for what should’ve been his own exercise of free speech.
Hall captured the interaction on camera, trying to get the officers to explain why the hateful Christian had a First Amendment right to post his messages — which they all agreed he had — but why he didn’t have the same right to scrub those messages away.
He never got a straight answer.
Sean Faircloth, the former executive director of the Secular Coalition for America who served as state senator, city councilor, and mayor of Bangor at various times throughout his career, said on Saturday that he went to Pickering Square the day after that video was posted, erased a message that he saw (“Why hate God, Scott?”), and dared the police to arrest him too. They did not.
… I simultaneously called Bangor PD, suggesting they issue a one-year no-trespass order against me. They haven’t. They haven’t issued a no-trespass order against fundamentalists who chalk anti-gay statements, as they have for years. Yet Scott’s barred for a year? Bangor residents own the public square. No-trespass orders must be equally applied, to Scott, to fundamentalist chalkers, even to former state senators and mayors. Or something better could happen: at least consider withdrawing the no-trespass order, weighing First Amendment considerations. Respecting Bangor PD as I do, there may be another explanation, but has this law been applied equally?…
The police have since issued a statement claiming that Hall was harassing the Christian writing the messages:
One of the men left to avoid further confrontation. The other man followed and continued to harass the other.
The officers attempted to resolve the issue through conversation. Both men were told their activity is in fact a protected exercise and warranted neither restriction nor police engagement. The only reason the police were present was because of the reported dispute.
One of the men was cooperative. The other was not. The man who remained uncooperative, continued to escalate the situation and engage in active behavior was told to leave the area so to avoid continued confrontation. He refused. He was issued a trespass order for that particular area. He then left.
Hall told me last night that’s not true at all. He never bothered the pastor, much less had a confrontation with him, other than telling him to move away when he got “uncomfortably close.” The pastor, on the other hand, was often yelling at him, yelling things like Hall “hated God.”
The police also told him he had to leave, period. It’s not like Hall had the option to stay had he calmed down (even though he says he wasn’t screaming or yelling at all). The cops didn’t make the same request of the Christian writing the messages.
Alison Gill, Vice President for Legal and Policy at American Atheists, told me the police clearly overstepped their limits here:
While police can prevent individuals from writing messages in chalk in public places, they may not selectively allow messages based on the viewpoint. It’s exactly the same for erasing such messages.
In this case, the police officers violated Mr. Hall’s right to free expression based on his viewpoint. The video makes clear that they knew who placed the chalk messages and did nothing to stop them — they only interfered with Mr. Hall when he tried to erase the messages. There was no evidence that Mr. Hall was causing a public disturbance or otherwise interfering with the church group. He has exactly the same right to express his views as they do.
What happens now is anybody’s guess. Ideally, the police department would apologize for their treatment of Hall, revoke the no-trespassing order, and stop interfering with people engaging in free speech. I’m not optimistic they’ll do any of those things.
(Thanks to @4RealTomHudson for the link)