A vulgar political flag flies in front of a Sabattus Street home in Lewiston. The city received a number of complaints about it, but city officials declined to ask the couple renting an apartment there to take the flag down, citing free speech protections. When the building owner learned about the flag Friday, he asked the couple to take it down. This image has been altered to conceal profanity. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Editor’s note: The story you are about to read contains offensive language.

LEWISTON — Following the inauguration last month, the yard signs at 1014 Sabattus St. in support of Donald Trump were replaced by a flag stating “F*** Biden, and f*** you for voting for him.”

Due to its location in a heavily traveled section of the city, it didn’t take long for people to take notice. City officials began to receive emails about it, but relayed the news that they couldn’t do much about a flag waving on private property.

According to City Administrator Denis D’Auteuil, the city responded that although the language displayed on the sign may be disturbing to some residents, “the First Amendment and rights to free speech limit the ability for the city to react in a regulatory way to complaints of this nature. The homeowner is within their rights to display a sign like this under the First Amendment and rights to free speech.”

The same goes for most license plates and bumper stickers on vehicles, like the “#F***Mills” stickers in reference to Maine Gov. Janet Mills, which have become popular among those railing against COVID-19 restrictions.

But, the brash and sometimes obscene language used in political messaging has become more commonplace, and has filtered down to local politics as a way for people to “dig in their heels.”

Stephanie Kelley-Romano, associate professor and chair of the rhetoric, film, and screen studies department at Bates College, said Friday that it’s “really unfortunate and counter-productive” when vulgarity is used to personalize political rhetoric.

She said once people commit to a position as blunt and controversial as “F*** Mills,” for example, their heels are already dug in, and they only look for confirming information.

“As people attach their identity to their politics and adopt this type of language, the likelihood of actual conversation or discourse greatly diminishes,” she said. “Add in cancel culture and you shut down yet another potential avenue of communication (the internet/forums etc.). So we end up in these echo chambers, totally reinforced through technology that can ‘suggest’ articles we might like to read.”

Lewiston Mayor Mark Cayer said he recently received an email from a constituent with questions about the legality of the Sabattus Street sign, but that he had to relay the message that he couldn’t do anything.

He said he’s been disappointed to see the dysfunction and breakdown in rhetoric make it to the local level.

“When you see politicians behaving with that type of attitude, it really signals that it’s OK to do,” he said. “It’s a shame because it’s teaching our kids the same thing.”

Referring to the sign, he said, “Kids drive past that every day. It might be someone’s First Amendment right, but it’s not OK.”

The property at 1014 Sabattus St. is owned by Rancourt Associates. When the Sun Journal contacted the company Friday, building landlord Paul Rancourt said he was previously unaware of the sign, but said he subsequently asked his tenants to remove it.

Rancourt said the tenant cited freedom of speech, but Rancourt said it wasn’t appropriate.

“There’s kids around, we don’t need to use those words,” he said.

The tenant, Hope Roakes, then posted late Friday on the community Facebook page Lewiston Rocks about being asked to take the flag down, stating, “What happen to freedom of speech! We are losing our rights!”

In a later comment, Roakes said her boyfriend hung up the flag.

Response to Roakes’ post was mixed, with some commenters telling her the landlord was within his rights to ask for the flag to be taken down and others telling her to stand up for free speech and rehang the flag either on the pole or on an inside window so it could be seen from outside. One commenter said, “Not a Trump supporter, not a Biden supporter, and I still would rather see them being able to fly their flag because it’s how THEY feel.”

Controversial signage or statements placed on private property but in public view are often the source of debate, including the debate over obscene license plates, reignited a few years ago with a Maine plate that said “F***YOU.”

According to a 2019 article in the Portland Press Herald, the state stopped screening vanity license plate requests for vulgarities in 2015 and now rejects or recalls plates only if they are likely to incite violence, including those with racial slurs or Nazi slogans. At the time, then-Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said he didn’t believe Maine’s previous screening process would have survived a court challenge.

Following constituent complaints, Auburn state Sen. Ned Claxton proposed a bill titled, “An Act to Minimize Potentially Objectionable License Plates,” but it never made it to the 2020 legislative session.

In Lewiston, Cayer said he foresaw a shift in politics and tone when he served on the Farmington Board of Selectmen in the early 2000s, and can remember talking to colleagues about how the breakdown in rhetoric, starting at the national level, was already happening.

“I’m a firm believer that we’re only going to be able to fix it from the bottom up, starting with local government,” he said. “People need to be in it for the right reasons. People say compromise is just giving in, but it’s not.”

Bates’ Kelley-Romano said statements like “F*** Mills” are an attack on Mills personally, rather than a critique of any policy.

She said when she sees these types of statements on social media, she often asks “why?”

“Often people come up with general statements like ‘She’s screwing us over’ or ‘She’s destroying the economy,’ but can’t explain how,” she said. “So reducing the conversation to mudslinging personal attacks prevents discussion about actual issues.”

The use of “F*** Mills” as both a hashtag and meme has spread across social media platforms, often used as a way to rail against COVID-19 restrictions. But it’s also been printed on merchandise like stickers and T-shirts.

A quick search on Facebook yields a page called “Janet Mill’s Memes,” with more than 10,000 followers. A description of the page states “Memes of Janet Mills because F*** JANET MILLS.”

In a recent post, the page administrator encouraged people to join another similar page with a name too vulgar to print. It is a private page with 743 followers.

On Twitter and Instagram, the hashtag shows hundreds of results, or photos with people showing off merchandise. An account on Instagram shared a jack-o’-lantern with the phrase carved into a pumpkin. A Twitter user using the hashtag said he was “proud” of his daughter because she had put a “#F***Mills” bumper sticker on her car.

As the November election approached, a thread on the r/Maine Reddit page intended to confront people using the bumper stickers. The poster stated, “Can you grow up please? Whatta time to be a kid, riding around reading bumper stickers and they come across ‘F*** MILLS.'”

It goes on to say, “Sincerely, the rest of us sensible and decent Mainers understand that up here governors come and go, but your neighbors are usually forever.”

Cayer said despite a few examples, he believes Lewiston has been fortunate in its discourse, especially among elected officials.

“I’m proud of the (Lewiston City) Council and how it conducts itself,” he said. “We’ve elected good people who are here to try to help their neighbors.”

He said he always tries to reflect on what he says and how he says it.

“It’s the responsibility of the community to be better than that,” he said.


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