A recent situation at the Maple Lane Apartments in Northeast Harbor serves as a perfect illustration of the societal fortitude required when upholding the principles of free speech guaranteed in the Constitution’s First Amendment.
A Northeast Harbor man included several small Confederate Battle Flags as part of a much larger display on the door of his apartment on the Fourth of July. Mindful of the surging national controversy over display of the flag, an emblem of a society that started a deadly war to protect the institution of slavery, a maintenance man at the complex asked the resident to remove the Stars and Bars from the display. When the resident refused, the head of the Mount Desert Island Housing Authority, also a government employee, came to the scene and ordered them taken down.
Ironically, this all transpired over the holiday where we celebrate our freedoms and our forebears’ Declaration of Independence from a tyrannical government.
Mindful of increased awareness of the negative reaction the Confederate flag draws from many people, it was an admirable instinct for the housing officials to stand up for the sensibilities of this man’s neighbors.
But when government employees, however well-intentioned, attempt to regulate political statements, they cross a constitutional line. The very definition of censorship is the government’s control of information, including any official attempt to regulate the free exchange or expression of ideas. Residing in subsidized housing does not require tenants to surrender their constitutional rights.
Whether the result of ignorance about the symbolism involved or juvenile anti-social behavior, such display of those flags remains inherently political in nature, thus protected under the First Amendment.
Requesting that the flags be removed, explaining to the tenant why others might find them offensive and urging other residents to express their contrary views might have been appropriate attempts to defuse the situation.
In the Northeast Harbor case, we hope the tenant now is more aware of the sensitivity of others, and that officials of the housing authority have had time to reflect on how those in authority should proceed.
In its original deployment, the display on the door might have generated a few shaking heads from those wondering why someone would want to call so much attention to himself. By over-reacting, however, officials drew more attention to this individual, even making him a sympathetic figure in some eyes.
In the end, government representatives should avoid becoming unwilling arbiters as to what political speech is worthy and what is not.