The right to dissent loudly and publicly is time-honored in America, but at-their-home protests of the sort we’ve seen targeting Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker raise an important question: Should objectors be able to gather day after day outside an elected official’s house and yell and scream and otherwise make noise — and occasionally voice vile sentiments — and, by so doing, disrupt the neighborhood?
Although we tend to think of the right to protest anywhere in the open air as all but absolute, that’s not the case. Outside government buildings like the State House or City Hall? Sure.
In public parks or as a march? Yes again.
But when it comes to private residences, things change, and for a simple reason. If one doesn’t want to listen to protests in public spaces, he or she has an easy option: Leave. A home, however, is one’s personal castle — and the courts have recognized that people have a right not to be subjected to regular noisy protests there.
Republican state Representative Steven Howitt of Seekonk has filed legislation that would require protesters to stay 300 feet from an elected state official’s place of residence. As he notes, the US Supreme Court has upheld bans against picketing an individual’s residence as long as such a ban isn’t discriminatory in its intent or application. The ruling there came from Frisby v. Schultz, a 1988 case that concerned a city ban on private-residence protests enacted after antiabortion activists began gathering regularly and vocally outside the home of a doctor who performed the procedure. By a 6-3 majority, the high court upheld the Brookfield, Wis., law.
“The First Amendment has been interpreted to not protect sidewalk protests targeted at particular homes,” explains an American Civil Liberties Union guide to picketing and protests. But even if one believes that such home-turf protests come with the territory of being an elected official — and I don’t — it certainly shouldn’t be something the neighbors also have to suffer through.
Still, if the Legislature or the Boston City Council don’t want to pass such a law or statute, there’s another way to tackle the problem of neighborhood disruption: The state and city should provide public residences for the governor and mayor.
Massachusetts is one of only five states that does not have a public abode for its governor. The other four? Neighboring Rhode Island and Vermont, plus Arizona and Idaho.
Back in its days as a colony, the Bay State did have a residence for royally appointed governors, Province House, which was situated on what is now Washington Street. The supposedly stately building suffered disrepair and a fire in the 19th century and was demolished in 1920s.
Having a gubernatorial residence somewhere within the I-495 area would also solve a problem for the occasional governor who hails from Western Massachusetts — and thus faces a time-consuming commute to and from work.
Mayoral residences are much less common than gubernatorial residences, but hardly unheard of. New York City, which we Bostonians consider our big metropolitan rival (a feeling that isn’t necessarily reciprocated) does, as do Los Angeles, Detroit, and Denver, though they aren’t all or always lived in.
If they can do it, so can Boston.
Location would obviously be key; we’d need a siting panel to evaluate options. Such residences should obviously be at some remove from the neighbors. For security, the properties should be fenced, with the domiciles far enough back that protests there wouldn’t be aurally overwhelming for those inside. For that reason, I’d rule out the Parkman House as the mayoral residence.
The governor and mayor wouldn’t be forced to live there, obviously, but they would at least have that option. There would be an upfront cost to acquiring the residences, but the annual cost of running and maintaining public abodes for governors around the country isn’t immense. The midrange seems to be about half a million dollars a year. It would no doubt be higher in Massachusetts, but with a state budget of $47.6 billion and a city budget of $3.7 billion, the yearly expense would still be relatively insignificant.
As to the worry that a governor or mayor would grow removed from public opinion living outside of a neighborhood and inside a fenced residence? Well, they’d do so at their own political peril. After all, there’s no quicker way to be shown the electoral door than by acquiring a reputation for being out of touch.