“Banned in Boston” was a term widely used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to describe the city’s habit of censoring books and plays that a powerful and puritanical group of its leading citizens didn’t happen to like. Yesterday, strong evidence emerged that an even more disturbing set of “Banned in Boston” impulses have staged a comeback: a policy of censoring political speech and the city’s police commissioner, and possibly the rest of its political leadership, doesn’t like.
The story begins with a charge made by John Medlar, an organizer of yesterday’s so-called rally held in Boston yesterday avowedly to support the idea of free speech. I only say “so-called” because rally attendance was pathetically low. In any event, Medlar claims that before the event’s scheduled end at 2 PM local time, “supporters were blocked by counter-protesters and by police from getting to their cordoned-off area….” (This phrasing is from a local radio station report.)
More important, later yesterday afternoon, Boston Police Commissioner William Evans was asked to respond. His own words (as quoted by that same local radio station): “If they [people who want to talk about hate] didn’t get in, that’s a good thing, because their message isn’t what we want to hear.”
There’s definitely some ambiguity here. For example, is Evans saying that he heard that some who wanted to attend the rally just happened to fail to make it through the combination of massed counter-protesters and the heavy police presence stationed in the area to prevent violence (a presence that accomplished this crucial mission far more effectively than its counterpart in Charlottesville, Virginia, the weekend before)? Or is Evans agreeing that the police knowingly prevented rally supporters from reaching the rally site? Obviously, the first possibility would be much more excusable, especially if those wanting to attend the rally failed to make their identities known, than the second.
Yet even if the inevitable confusion surrounding such events was partly or mainly responsible for the inability of some to attend the rally, it’s still justifiable in my view to criticize the Boston police and the orders they may have received. For as I argued last Saturday, free speech can’t truly be protected adequately if protesters or rally-ers can be intimidated from or physically blocked from carrying out their planned activities (provided of course that these activities are peaceful).
As a result, local, state, and/or federal authorities have a legal and Constitutional obligation actively to ensure that these events go on as planned. Otherwise, even the right of unpopular causes to demonstrate despite possible threats their activity might pose to public safety and order (because of disorderly behavior from their opponentsdeeds) can too easily be turned into a hollow right. And this country would take a big step closer to mob rule.
So I propose that the federal government launch a civil rights investigation to find out what actually happened at the Boston Common. Satisfactorily accurate conclusions can’t be drawn based solely on the news coverage, or even on Evans’ statements. But Evans’ own words certainly indicate that his officers and those to whom they report dropped a major free speech ball of some kind here.