Thursday, May 30, 2013

Press releases: Back to basics

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The past week's events in Augusta provide a teachable moment for Maine's elected officials and the public at large, on the topic of free speech. In a statement last Thursday, Republican Governor Paul LePage blasted Democratic legislators for having "attempted to silence the Governor and violate his right to freedom of speech."
Before we get into the specifics, let's talk for a moment about what freedom of speech means, and what it doesn't. It does not mean that a person can say anything at any time to anyone and face no repercussions. It means that the government cannot stop a private citizen from saying something the government does not like before it's said.
But if the government doesn't like what's been said, it can prosecute people (such as for leaking classified information). And the power of the courts can also be used if private parties don't like what's been said (such as in a libel case).
Now we can turn to LePage's two main complaints.
• "On Sunday [Democrats] refused to allow Governor LePage to speak with members of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee regarding the Medicaid shortfall the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) faces for the remaining fiscal year which ends on July 1."
The committee was meeting in a hastily arranged Sunday work session, and heard testimony from Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew and Financial Services Commissioner Sawin Millett, as well as discussion among the legislators on the panel.
In legislative work sessions, public testimony is not permitted, though committee members often ask for comments from various interested parties, including state officials but also, at times, non-government employees who have particular expertise on a topic or could be affected by the legislation being discussed.
Paul LePage, private citizen, would not have been allowed to speak unless specifically asked by the committee — but that is not a violation of his right to free speech. It's a matter of legislative process. However, his role as governor should have gotten him a turn talking.
It's true that his administration's position was well stated and well explored by the two commissioners' appearances. But when the head of the state's government shows up to state his position in person, it's an unusual move, and reasonable to think that he should have been given his own opportunity to speak his mind — and, as is the protocol, to remain after making a statement to answer questions from committee members.
It's hard to argue that the administration was censored when top officials were afforded significant amounts of time to speak. But it is a failure to defer out of respect for the office of the governor, if not for the man himself.
• "Democrats have told the Governor that he cannot have a television in the Office of the Governor lobby area, which is on the second floor of the State House. In a letter, Governor Paul R. LePage informed Democratic Leadership today that the television is placed in the reception area of the Governor's Office. Senate President Justin Alfond today told Governor LePage in a morning meeting that he could not have the television on display."
This one's a no-brainer, not least because LePage's characterization of the TV's location is inaccurate — the "Office of the Governor lobby area" is in fact the Hall of Flags outside his office. Anyone, private citizen or public official, who set up a television — with any message, or even turned off and with no message whatsoever — in the Hall of Flags of the State House without proper permission from the bipartisan Legislative Council would have been asked to remove it.
The Hall of Flags is a public place managed for the access, expression, and well-being of all Mainers. Its management is smooth and effective, allowing for a wide range of viewpoints and events to occur in a prominent public space. In this case, the deference should have been from the governor (who has ample platform to share his beliefs) to the shared spirit of the hall.