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SPJ discourages restrictions at Maine rallies


ContactRobert Leger, SPJ President, 417/836-1113 or cell 417/425-9140 or rleger@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS -- Restrictions placed on people attending two rallies in Lewiston, Maine, this weekend infringe on citizens’ First Amendment rights, the Society of Professional Journalists says.

The white supremacist World Church of the Creator is rallying in Lewiston on Saturday in support of a letter written by the town’s mayor urging a slowdown in the migration of Somalis to Lewiston. A pro-diversity counter rally also is scheduled.

Police, fearing violence could break out at either rally, say they will not let anyone attend with anything that could be used as a weapon, including pepper spray, protest signs mounted on wood, or cameras and recording devices unless they’re approved in advance.

Signs made on soft materials such as paper or cloth also will be kept out if, in the opinion of police, they are too offensive. “Anything offensive, so offensive that it invites a reaction, we’re trying to keep those out,” City Administrator Jim Bennett told the Lewiston Sun-Journal newspaper.

Bennett said cameras, as well as audio and video recorders, are banned because they could be used as weapons or to hide “chemical agents.”

“While we understand the city’s desire to protect citizens from violence, it cannot trample on the Bill of Rights,” said SPJ President Robert Leger, editorial page editor at the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader. “But that’s exactly what it’s doing.”

The First Amendment doesn’t protect only mainstream journalists’ rights to record and report on events of public interest. “Someone opposed to what the World Church of the Creator stands for may want to document what is said at its rally. Similarly, a church member may want to record the events at the counter rally. Or a fledgling Internet reporter may want to produce a story,” Leger said. “The police should not be in the position of deciding who may and may not take pictures or record sound.”

Equally troubling is the city’s decision to appoint itself arbiter of taste. “The First Amendment guarantees free expression. It doesn’t carry a footnote that says ‘subject to approval.’ Government, including the police, has absolutely no business passing judgment on what is an appropriate expression of thought,” Leger said. “The Lewiston city government may have the best of intentions, but once police become censors we no longer live in a free society.”

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. SPJ is dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, and based in Indianapolis, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.

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