Ah, Wilderness!

By David Trumbull

May 17, 2001

To be a Republican in Cambridge is freedom. Having scant prospect of winning public office, there is no need to temper one's remarks to sound more electable. Being out of office, one can think about policy, rather than re-election. Indeed, the conservative movement in America has often been most vigorous when--as after the 1964 Barry Goldwater defeat and after the 1992 Clinton victory--it was wandering in the wilderness.

Of this freedom of being out of office I have learnt something from an unlikely source--former Boston city councilor Thomas M. Keane, Jr. Keane, known as a progressive liberal Democrat on the city council, now sounds like a conservative Republican! Keane as councilor did not distinguish himself as supporter of the First Amendment, but as newspaper op-ed columnist he has taken a belatedly interest in press freedom. Out of office, and apparently no longer office seeking, he has become a critic of Boston regulations that ban newspaper boxes. The people in power, meanwhile, must hew to the politically correct line that newspaper boxes, and by extension newspapers other than major corporate-owned dailies, are a blight on the city.

Banned in Boston

An updated version of Boston's Watch and Ward Society is very much still with us. Only now it goes under the names of numerous "neighborhood associations." And "liberal" Cambridge gleefully joins in, and even surpasses, the Hub in restricting individual liberties when there are votes to be gotten from would-be censors.

When not trying to close down small, independent presses, they are busy-bodying about what you say, drink, eat, or smoke. In Cambridge you can get yourself arrested for "acting, singing, playing musical instruments, pantomime, juggling, magic, dancing, reading, puppetry, sidewalk art, or reciting" on a street corner without a $40 street performer license, or within 100 feet of a school. Unlicensed performer, Ian Mac Kinnon, with help from the American Civil Liberties Union, is challenging this unconstitutional restriction on free speech. His victory--for surely he will win--against the City will be a good beginning of sweeping away unnecessary restrictions on individual liberties.

Unlicensed poets, free-range cigarette smokers (yes outdoor smoking is restricted and in some places banned in Cambridge), a glass of beer with dinner at an outdoor cafe--these are among the perils that Cambridge City Council has banned to the applause of people whose only pleasure seems to be in telling others how to live.

One effect--unintended I hope--of these rules is the limiting of spontaneous interaction among people. Admission charging theatres, lecture halls, etc, continue to operate, but the individual who wants to stand up in Central Square and recite poetry to casual passers-by is significantly restricted. You can go inside a restaurant and have a meal and glass of wine, but you cannot sit at a sidewalk cafe in Cambridge and do the same. Compare that to Boston, where on a typical summer Sunday afternoon I can sit at a cafe on Newbury Street and have wonderful spontaneous conversations with acquaintances who are walking Newbury Street in part because it is the sort of place to run into people.

Or consider the newspaper box regulations. The major corporate-owned papers can absorb the regulations as a cost of doing business. A small local paper can be put out of business by these rules. But it is the small locally-owned paper that gives an outlet to some of the offbeat persons and views that make Cambridge an interesting place.

These rules dampen local citizen participation in democracy, favor big corporations over local businesses, favor businesses over individuals, foster conformity over individual expression, and discourage human interaction. In short the rules restrict things that Cambridge City Councilors like to proclaim their support for, and encourage the very things that they claim to be harmful to community life. Why is that?

My theory is that it is due to the overwhelming dominance of liberal thought in Cambridge. Not that liberals are inherently more likely to try to ban free speech. But Cambridge liberals are so sure of there own liberalism, and are so seldom seriously challenged by alternative views, that they cannot imagine that they could do something so illiberal as to ban expressive speech. Cambridge liberals do not seek to ban local content newspapers, merely regulate them out of existence.

Ian Mac Kinnon, Editorial Humor, and others who value public discourse in public space are fighting against this new kinder and gentler censorship. The odd allies in the struggle are those few civil libertarians who are willing to go against the sometimes illiberal liberal power structure to defend individual rights, and conservatives in their customary role of one crying in the wilderness.

[David Trumbull is Chairman of the Cambridge Republican City Committee.]