Judge won’t silence speech, tells conservative group to try persuasion

A conservative advocacy group, the Maine Heritage Policy Center (MHPC) has failed, at least so far, in its attempt to silence the Maine Municipal Association (MMA).

And, from the MHPC, there’s an “Orweillian” irony.

In a very readable decision, Judge Woodcock said claims that the MMA trampled on others’ free speech by their speech “lack legal merit.”

Moreover, through all the proceedings for this suit, the MHPC was unclear about how the MMA’s campaign activities undermine free speech. As the judge put it, “the Plaintiffs are vague about the precise constitutional claims they are making.”

Rather than silencing speech, the MHPC should try persuasion

Like other cases on “government speech,” the judge ruled that people can counter the MMA’s speech by their own arguments — more speech — and by trying to change the MMA’s position by democratic mechanisms — elections, petitioning, and changing laws.

[T]he Plaintiffs have an abundance of other avenues to pursue the relief they seek. Many are political. At the local level, they may run their own slate of candidates, who—if elected—would then be empowered to change municipal policy. Alternatively, they may petition their municipalities to take a different stance—whether by asserting themselves within MMA’s internal governance structures or by withdrawing from MMA.

Ultimately, instead of trying to silence the MMA, the MHPC should try to persuade their fellow citizens to support their views.

As Judge Woodcock wrote:

A core principle of our system of government is that more speech is better than less, and the Plaintiffs remain free to make their own voices louder and more persuasive in the marketplace of ideas.

One irony remains

There is an irony surrounding this case involving how the MHPC reported its loss in this lawsuit.

In its on-line newsletter, the article on the decision bears the headline, “Federal Judge: Maine Municipal Association’s PAC Activities ‘Orwellian.”

But in fact the judge said just the opposite.

The section in the decision that uses the term “Orwellian” is on page 54. Here’s how it reads:

There is also a certain Orwellian aspect to the vision of government sponsored speech drowning out the voices of ordinary citizens and in so doing assuring the continued sustenance and primacy of government itself. See GEORGE ORWELL, NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR (1949). But here the Plaintiffs have not made the case, if it could be made, that government speech so dominated the debate that the views of others, including the Plaintiffs, were eclipsed.

Note how the argument is structured. It says that the vision presented is one where the government drowns out “the voices of ordinary citizens” and keeps itself in control, but those bringing the case didn’t show this happened.

That spectre of government control of political discourse, invoked by MHPC, didn’t actually exist.

So what’s ironic about a headline that proclaims “Federal Judge: Maine Municipal Association’s PAC Activities ‘Orwellian”?

Well, “Orwellian” typically refers to speech that actually means the opposite of its reality.

Common slogans in George Orwell’s 1984 were “war is peace,” “freedom is slavery,” and “ignorance is strength.” In the book, the Ministry of Truth spread lies, the Ministry of Love carried out intimidation and torture, the Ministry of Peace waged war and the Ministry of Plenty rationed goods.

Since the decision explicitly rejected MHPC’s claim —  saying “the Plaintiffs have not made the case, if it could be made” that the MMA controlled the field of political discourse — what’s Orwellian is MHPC’s claim that Judge Woodcock said the Maine Municipal Association’s approach was “Orwellian.”

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.