Monday, May 16, 2005

Little Reichstag Fires

Freedom of Speech_1
Freedom of Speech (1943) by Norman Rockwell

“Lies.” That's the only word I can apply to the case that councilmen Howard Baughman and Marty Mohr have made to justify their attempt to deny citizens the opportunity to address the Portsmouth City Council on items not on the agenda, which citizens have been able to do for many years. Baughman and Mohr are trying their hardest to suppress the views of the informed citizens who attend council meetings and occasionally criticize council members, especially Baughman and Mohr themselves. Just how far the two councilmen are willing to go to suppress freedom of speech was evident at the May 9th council meeting, which I attended and which I have also viewed a tape of.

One of the well-informed citizens who addresses the council and occasionally criticizes them is Teresa Mollette. The specific justification that Baughman and Mohr gave for suppressing free speech was her criticism at the April 25th council meeting of councilman David Malone. In comments on the council's inability to handle budgets, Teresa Mollette pointed out that Malone, a councilman who was running for mayor, was not good with budgets. Councilman Malone has some admirable qualities as a public servant, but he is not good with budgets. That is no secret. Like everybody else, he is not perfect. But Mollette's criticism of Malone was not an attack on, or a harassment and an intimidation of, him, as Baughman charged. Nor did Mollette administer a "thrashing" to Malone, as Baughman also alleged.

I was at the April 25th meeting and heard Teresa Mollette address the council. I have since viewed a tape of her comments. She did not attack, harass, intimidate, or thrash Malone, as Baughman claimed. To say that she did is so gross a misrepresentation of what she said and how she said it as to constitute a lie. She was speaking on the failures of the council as a whole in handling budgets. She made a passing reference to councilman Malone because the Daily Times had written that he claimed to be working on balancing the budget. She wasn't singling out Malone; she made it clear she was criticizing the council per se for being penny-wise and pound-foolish in refusing to pay claims by former long-time city employees against the city. She spoke about 3 minutes on the council's budgetary shortcomings; less than half a minute was on Malone.

Baughman and Mohr seem oblivious to the fact that not only is what they and others say at council meetings recorded in the minutes but they are also recorded on tape, by Joe Ferguson, for all to hear and see on his website, Moe's Forum, including body language and facial expressions.

John Welton wrote recently that, “It is becoming more apparent that Sixth Ward City Councilman Marty Mohr is trying his best to cause another political firestorm between the residents of Portsmouth and the City Council.” In a similar vein, Austin Leedom wrote that the Baughman-Mohr attempt to restrict free speech smacked of facism. Firestorm? Fascism? That may strike some as wildly exaggerated. But after sitting through the April 25th and May 9th meetings, as well as earlier ones, I can understand why Leedom and Welton would make these charges.

Let me remind you of a historical parallel. On Feb. 27, 1933, a fire of suspicious origin destroyed the Reichstag, or parliament building, in Berlin. Many historians believe the Reichstag fire was started by the Nazis, who used it as a justification for cracking down on their political opponents and seizing unlimited powers. Remember the city council meeting at which citizens were searched at the door for hidden weapons after a threat was allegedly made against Baughman by someone in a local bar? A reliable source told me that the alleged threat was relayed to authorities by the son of the city clerk. Jo Ann Aeh, the city clerk, has been associated with the Portsmouth City Council since 1980, not long after she and her husband were reportedly welcomed into the Ku Klux Klan by the white supremacist David Duke. The tactics used by supporters of city manager Barry Feldman in 1980 to remove from office three councilmen who were his political opponents resembled the infamous tactics used by the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis to intimidate their opponents.

What we are currently witnessing in Portsmouth is a series of little Reichstag fires to justify a crackdown on free speech and free assembly. Baughman’s characterization of Teresa Mollette’s April 25th remarks to the city council as an attempt to “inflame the environment,” to quote him again, is an example of an effort to light a little Reichstag fire. It is Baughman and Mohr, not Teresa Mollette, who are trying to "inflame the environment."

For example, at one council meeting, Marty Mohr abused his authority as acting president of the city council to angrily denounce "People on the Internet - and I think you all know who you are -- " for spreading rumors in an online chatroom about his having an adulterous affair with a young woman whose name been mentioned in the chatroom. Mohr apparently thought he recognized some of these "People on the Internet" in the front row of the council chambers and he denounced these "gentlemen," as he sarcastically called them, as "crap"; and he said anybody who associated with them were also crap. Since some of these "gentlemen" had wives who were present, the wives naturally took strong exception to his remarks, and pandemonium followed.

No citizen had ever used a council meeting to accuse Mohr of adultery, so why should Mohr use a council meeting to raise such a personal issue and then denounce citizens in the front row as crap? To quote further from Mohr's outburst, he said "Anybody, ANYBODY who'll say anything detrimental to my family, my wife, I will not stand for it!" As I understand it, nobody in the online chatroom had said anything detrimental about Mohr's wife or his family. It was Mohr who was accused of adultery, not his wife or his family, and if he was going to defend anybody at a city council meeting it should not have been his wife or his family but himself. Perhaps it was just an oversight, but he did not deny the adultery charge. Following his outburst, Mohr was reportedly escorted to his car by police. (I listened to Mohr's outburst and the pandemonium that followed it on an audioclip.)

The meeting at which Mohr provoked pandemonium is now being cited as justification for suppressing the right of free speech in public meetings in Portsmouth. Daily Times reporter Jeff Barron recently referred to the disturbances at council meetings as “outbursts,” without pointing out who created the “outbursts.” What those who are attempting to suppress freedom of speech are doing is creating the outbursts that are then used to justify a crackdown on free speech. Baughman characterized Teresa Mollette's mild 26-second criticism of the only African-American council member as a "thrashing." The definition of "thrashing" is to beat with a stick or whip. But it is the erratic Mohr, not Teresa Mollette, who has the reputation of carrying a chip on his shoulder and whip in his hand.

Baughman and Mohr’s ostensible defense of councilman Malone from criticism should be seen for what it is: a cynical attempt to pose as his protectors when it is themselves they are trying to protect. Disappointed as he probably is in his fourth place showing in the mayoral primary, Malone may mistakenly believe Baughman and Mohr are acting on his behalf in making an issue of Teresa Mollette's comments. I believe they are using him for their own political purposes. Baughman and Mohr are the objects of the citizens’ wrath, not Malone, and Malone would be making a serious error if he allows them to use him as an excuse for suppressing free speech.

Baughman and Mohr are laboring under the same illusion those who wield the real power in Portsmouth are laboring under. They think this is twenty-five years ago when the elite had the city manager Barry Feldman in their pocket and controlled the media. They believe they are above criticism and they treat anyone who criticizes them as disturbers of the peace, if not anarchists. Greg Bauer, who was recalled from office last June, had predicted that if he was not retained as mayor Portsmouth would fall into anarchy. Baughman, Mohr and the SOGP crowd they represent are trying by lighting little Reichstag fires to create the impression that Bauer's prophecy is coming true. Because they controlled the news the citizens of Portsmouth got for so long, the elite and their pawns on the council cannot countenance public challenges to their authority. In particular, they cannot stand the freedom of expression and information that the Internet makes possible. They cannot control the Internet, but they continue to try to control public meetings in Portsmouth, setting the conditions and terms under which those meetings take place, in contravention of the spirit of Ohio's Sunshine laws. The attempt to eliminate the opportunity of citizens to address and, yes, to criticize the city council on issues not on the agenda is just part of a wider effort to stifle freedom of speech. Whether they succeed may be decided at the next council meeting, on May 23rd, when another vote is expected on Mohr's motion.