There’s a subtle difference between free speech and stupid speech.
Free speech is the one guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It says the government can’t stop you from saying pretty much anything you’d like. What it doesn’t say is that there can still be all sorts of negative consequences from a variety of non-governmental entities. Your employer can fire you. Your neighbors can shun you. The media can hang you out to dry.
Free can be costly.
Which brings us to stupid speech, where there are also negative consequences. If you’re a comedian who decides to pose with what appears to be the severed head of Donald Trump, you should have been smart enough to expect some career-wrecking blowback.
If you’re a Maine would-be politician who calls a student who survived a school shooting a “skinhead lesbian,” you shouldn’t be surprised if the public reaction is swift and ugly.
If your speech to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner includes insulting references to Trump’s press secretary’s appearance, get ready to get slammed.
There’s a price to be paid for stupid.
Consider, for example, the case of Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro. Isgro was a rising star in the Republican Party. He appeared to be a reasonable conservative, more concerned with addressing municipal problems than scoring political points. He won the endorsement of his predecessor, Karen Heck, a liberal independent. He seemed to represent a repudiation of the politics of another former Waterville mayor, Paul LePage, and a return to the GOP’s moderate heritage that gave us Bill Cohen and Olympia Snowe. He disappointed a lot of middle-of-the-road voters when he decided not to enter the race for the Blaine House.
Instead, Isgro decided to focus his efforts on stupid.
Actually, Isgro had been doing stupid for some time. But it was mostly below-the-radar stupid. More than a year ago, he wrote a column demanding that immigrants “learn to assimilate into our national culture and adopt our shared values.” That statement didn’t elicit much outrage, other than a column by moderate Republican operative Lance Dutson in the Bangor Daily News pointing out that our “national culture” and “shared values” are imaginary concepts. Dutson also noted that Waterville has a long history of vibrant immigrant communities that were slow to assimilate, including French Canadians and Lebanese.
Isgro was undeterred. He continued to post material on his social media accounts that could be construed as disparaging to immigrants in general and Muslims in particular (“third-world hordes”). He attacked the pope, public education and anti-sexual harassment education, sometimes using vulgar expressions usually associated with alt-right internet trolls. He spread false conspiracy theories and called GOP U.S. Sen. Susan Collins a “hack liberal.”
Then, he went all-out stupid.
After Parkland, Florida, school-shooting survivor David Hogg got into a dispute with Fox News host Laura Ingraham, Isgro tweeted, “Eat it, Hogg.”
That was far from the most offensive thing he’d ever posted. As invective, you’d hear worse at the average LePage press conference. But it was insensitive, unnecessary and ill-considered. Not exactly qualities befitting a mayor. Well, maybe Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling. But not most mayors.
Isgro’s opponents, led by his former ally Heck, initiated a successful recall petition drive that will force a vote on removing him from office. The mayor claimed he was under attack by “dark money funded outsiders,” who were attempting to seize an Infinity Stone hidden deep under Waterville City Hall. Or maybe that’s just in the movie version.
In the midst of all this, Isgro lost his job as a senior official at Skowhegan Savings Bank (where, in the interest of full disclosure, I have a couple of accounts). It’s not clear if he was fired, asked to resign, quit or was ousted by Thanos.
So, it’s tough being Nick Isgro these days. His sympathizers claim he’s being crucified for exercising his First Amendment rights. As his wife, Amanda Isgro, put it in an op-ed in the Morning Sentinel, “Trying to destroy a person is not an appropriate response to political disagreement.”
But that’s not exactly what this case is about. Nobody is saying the mayor doesn’t have the right to free speech. What they’re arguing is that, as mayor, Isgro has a responsibility to avoid stupid speech. And he’s neglected that responsibility in a major way.
Oh, and it might have been nice if he’d apologized. It would have made him look less stupid.
Comments, preferably free rather than stupid, may be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.