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Sidewalk chalk dispute sparks free speech debate in Bangor

An incident over the weekend is leaving Bangor residents in a debate over free speech.

BANGOR, Maine — A local church group writing messages in chalk believed to target one group is forcing some people to take matters into their own hands.

Over the weekend, a group from the Mansion Church in Bangor wrote messages in West Market and Pickering Squares as part of its Sidewalk Scripture campaign.

Many messages were believed to be hate speech towards the LGBTQ+ community, written directly under the flags of Pride.

"Hate speech" is loosely defined by law as any kind of communication that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or group based on something such as race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation".

Bangor City Solicitor Paul Nicklas says cities can either totally allow or totally deny chalk writing, "But they can't really pick or chose the message that is allowed to be chalked there."

Even if the messages are hateful.

But, Nicklas says, "They can also erase what they want."

Washing away messages is exactly what Scott Hall did, leading to the dispute that got the Bangor Police Department involved. According to police, they were called to Pickering Square around 8 p.m. on Friday in response to calls about two men arguing.

Police say one man left to avoid further confrontation, but the other man followed him and continued to harass the other.

“The officers attempted to resolve the issue through conversation,” the Bangor Police Department said in a release. “Both men were told their activity is in fact a protected exercise and warranted neither restriction nor police engagement.  The only reason the police were present was because of the reported dispute. One of the men was cooperative. The other was not.”

After asking Hall to stop mopping and leave, Bangor police issued a trespass order for the area and he finally left.

"If I come back to Pickering Square within the next year, then I would be arrested,” Hall said.

Again, mopping away chalk messages is allowed according to Nicklas unless, “That violated some other law, if they were harassing, if they were being disorderly, those sorts of things, that's where you might get in trouble."

“I've never, never yelled at them or any kind of threats,” Hall said.

This is the first time Hall's been confronted by police, but not the first time dealing with this church group.

"If there's anything I can do to deal with that kind of behavior then I'm going to try to do that."

“While both men were engaged in a protected activity - the dispute was over the washing of the chalk writings in the moment they were written,” Bangor police said. “One man suggesting he has the liberty to write the messages in chalk while the other indicated he has the right to wash the messages away. Both are seemingly correct. The issue is that the eraser was harassing the writer in the moment. That behavior continued. The police acted only on the action of harassment.”

The Board of the Downtown Bangor Partnership wrote on Facebook they have "a stated goal of inclusion and ensuring downtown is a safe space for all, including our LGBTQ+ friends."

"We are deeply sorry for those who have been hurt by these actions and have already sprung into action to seek legal advice and to work with the police department to better understand how we can best handle this situation should it arise again," Downtown Bangor said.

Police say they did not make a determination with regard to the written message, and no one has been charged in connection to the dispute.

The Bangor Downtown Partnership is meeting Tuesday to discuss the incident further and Hall says he is seeking legal advice.

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