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Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Town Meeting Supports Impeachment, Restricts Political Speech

Dennis Fox

June 8, 2006

Town Meeting got it both right and wrong last Tuesday. Impeach the president? Sure. Let town cops arrest anyone holding a sign in front of someone's house? Well, okay, if we have to.

Impeachment may not be on Congress's agenda, but it's still good to see Brookline add its voice to the national effort to dis the president. Maybe local impeachment votes will strengthen the hand of the few in Congress who actually want to reign in the Bush Administration's Assault On Everything (AOE). More important, maybe they'll encourage ordinary people to expand their own role in national policy debates.

Despite publicity about Brookline's vote in the Boston Globe, the Herald, and the blogosphere, the impeachment debate at Town Meeting was entirely unexciting. A dozen or so opponents walked out to avoid taking part, though even that potentially dramatic moment was haphazard and mostly left people puzzled. After a few members made predictable statements pro and con, someone called the question. The 104-52 vote was anticlimactic.

Far more exciting, with far more immediate impact, was the warrant article about Brookline's ban on focused picketing. Two years ago, responding to doctors whose homes were picketed by obnoxious anti-abortion activists, Town Meeting passed a one-year ban on focused picketing and set up a committee to investigate long-term solutions. Last year the ban was extended to give the committee more time. Last week the committee majority proposed making the ban permanent. The minority opposed it.

I'm not sure why the committee needed two years to divide into these entirely predictable factions, but at least the debate at Town Meeting, unlike the ho-hum impeachment deliberation, was animated and thought-provoking. This time speakers on both sides were more conflicted than polarized. Indeed, it was this debate that demonstrated residents' ability to grapple with difficult issues in a serious way, exemplified most clearly by Rebecca Stone's careful balancing act before opting for free speech.

Proponents of the picketing ban, who eventually won by a vote of 114-80, emphasized the discomfort and fear caused by crowds of anti-abortion activists screaming "Murderer!" outside the homes of abortion clinic doctors. Targeted taunting, designed to pressure doctors into stopping their abortion work by making life miserable for their spouses and children, is obviously unpleasant. That's why the argument that the law should prevent protesters from targeting families is emotionally persuasive, even though the ban on single-house picketing doesn't depend on whether there's a family inside.

Still, it's an effective argument. Who wants crazies outside?

Proponents were on shakier ground with some other points. As noted by opponents, the fact that the US Supreme Court allows picketing bans should be cause for concern rather than comfort in an era of encroaching restrictions on individual rights and political organizing. That the federal courts are returning to their historic role as agents of repression is not something to brag about.

Similarly, the claim that Brookline's police chief likes the picketing ban should make all of us wonder why town cops need even more tools to hassle people than they already have. The chief has already threatened to arrest activists opposed to Boston University's new weapons lab for picketing outside the BU president's home. Who's next?

Opponents also pointed out that the new rule does not prevent people from marching back and forth endlessly in front of a row of houses screaming at everyone's children. Why is that better?

No one suggested banning just anti-abortion protestors, which is what most supporters really wanted but which modern First Amendment interpretation won't allow. A case could be made for banning speech designed to deprive others of legal rights, but no one made it last week.

I would have liked to see more speakers wrestle with this, but here too someone called the question. In the future, the Town Meeting Members Association should schedule public discussion of controversial issues a few weeks before Town Meeting meets. Both members and nonmembers should be able to raise and discuss issues without premature efforts to cut off debate. That kind of forum should also be held within each precinct, to give Town Meeting Members a better idea of the views held by the people they are elected to represent.

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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