SWAMPSCOTT ― Town officials and residents gathered at Swampscott High School for a Select Board meeting on Wednesday night, where they discussed the ongoing protests that spew hate speech and inappropriate language near Linscott Park and the beach.
At the beginning of the meeting, residents were invited to speak, where several shared their concern regarding the vulgar language being used at the protests near Hadley Elementary School, and sometimes even directed towards children.
One resident and Hadley parent said that her son told her he hears bad language being shouted and has been videotaped while walking out of school.
Another resident referred to the protests as “hate rallies,” saying the demonstrators propagate hate speech and wild conspiracy theories while also harassing people in the community on a weekly basis.
“They’re saying sexually-inappropriate things to children … Yelling that the president is a pedophile and wants to have sex with kids,” a resident said via Zoom at the meeting. “Having that (near a) school is a wrong that should easily be righted. It’s more than protesting. It’s a behavior that is harmful to children.”
While protests have been going on in this area for years, Town Administrator Sean Fitzgerald said many feel the same way about the vulgarity and indecency of some of the comments and behaviors made by protestors, adding that they incite bigotry and hate ― which are not the values of the town.
“We’ve made it clear that we are a community that’s welcoming and inclusive and we are taking steps to really build a generation that sees Swampscott as a place where wonderful things happen,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald, the town counsel, and the police department have been working together to find ways to address the vulgarities, but have been advised by the town counsel that they cannot curb free speech and that “protest rights” are broadly defined.
Fitzgerald said the Supreme Court has emphasized that the government cannot silence messages simply because they cause discomfort, fear, or anger, and even messages that cause disruption, traffic hazards, and safety concerns are allowed.
“We continue to explore strategies of how we can work with protesters and folks who assemble there, but it’s very difficult to relocate individuals. They have to be willing to move,” Fitzgerald said.
Interim Police Chief David Kurz said he has reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to look at how officers can protect the young citizens who are going to school in a way that aligns with First Amendment protections around citizens’ rights to protest.
“The language that is being shouted on loudspeakers is offensive and disturbing and it bumps up against common-sense guidelines and indecency,” Kurz said. “Every member of the police department is frustrated with our inability to do something for what we all recognize as being bad.”
Kurz said he spoke with the ACLU ― and is waiting to hear back ― about how the department can work collaboratively to allow people to have free speech and to also protect children from the obscene and graphic language heard near the schools.
Police Capt. Joseph Kable said although this is a constitutional issue, there are some laws regarding vulgarities and talking to children.
Kable said the department recently spoke to some parents and children, so they have filed charges in the court system against the people who were shouting sexual language at children.
Some factors that allowed for these charges to be filed, Kable said, include the children not being engaged in the protest and the back-and-forth, and the children not being expected to understand the nuances of what’s going on.
Fitzgerald said they have tried to find ways to deal with the legitimate concerns expressed at the meeting and have officers down at the protests every week, but are happy to get another legal opinion.
“Rather than finding ways to censor some of these conversations, let’s find ways to amplify different conversations,” Fitzgerald said. “Let’s double down on our values, look at ways to bring better conversation about inclusivity, why Swampscott stands opposed to these conversations of hate, and really support principles that build a sense that we are all in this together.”
Fitzgerald emphasized the positive steps the town is already taking toward inclusivity ― which he said is contrary to what people at the protests are shouting ― including having a pride flag at Town Hall, the police station, and the Department of Public Works, and drafting a proclamation to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous peoples day.
In regards to the protests, Fitzgerald said “we are going to do everything we can to keep Swampscott safe.”
The Select Board also urged people to feel comfortable enough to contact the police department if they feel concerned about their safety.
“Please reach out,” Fitzgerald said. “Understand that we are here to serve and protect and to find a path forward here that makes sense for everybody.”