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Proposal to prevent paramilitary and neo-Nazi training camps sparks free speech debate

Christopher Pohlhaus, founder of the neo-nazi Blood Tribe, yells "Sieg Heil" with Blood Tribe members at a March protest in Ohio.
Ford Fischer
News2Share via Bangor Daily News
Christopher Pohlhaus, founder of the neo-nazi Blood Tribe, yells "Sieg Heil" with Blood Tribe members at a March protest in Ohio.

A proposal to prohibit paramilitary "training camps" in Maine is sparking debate about how to protect the public from extremist groups without infringing on the right to free speech.

The proposal is a response to recent reports of a neo-Nazi "training camp" being built in the woods of Springfield, a rural Penobscot County town more than an hour north of Bangor. White supremacist groups, such as the Nationalist Social Club 131, are increasingly visible throughout New England as they hold small but boisterous rallies in Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, often targeting minority or immigrant communities as well the LGBTQ community.

The heightened public activity – along with talk of the neo-Nazi camp in Springfield – has elevated concerns that such groups see mostly white Maine as fertile ground. It is has also prompted discussion about whether Maine needs to update its laws regarding private militias and paramilitary groups.

"They have a perfect right to express their opinions and to protest,” said state Sen. Joe Baldacci, a Bangor Democrat. “But nobody, nobody has the right to create a situation and cause an incitement of violence or to train others to create civil disorder and disturbances of the peace and threats to other people."

Baldacci has drafted legislation that would make it a criminal offense to offer training in firearms, explosives or other tactics with the intent of causing a "civil disorder." The prohibition would not apply to training for law enforcement, self-defense programs, military science students, firearms instruction on safe use of guns or any legal shooting sports.

Maine State Police say they know there are concerns about the Springfield camp but that they are unaware of any illegal activity there under current laws. So Baldacci’s proposal, in addition to creating a new "civil disorder" offense, would also allow the attorney general or a district attorney to ask a court to block such camps.

"It would give law enforcement better tools to control these situations,” Baldacci said.

But the proposal concerns Zachary Heiden, chief counsel at the ACLU of Maine.

"We have opposed bills like this in Maine when they are organized around Black Lives Matter groups or racial organizing. And the principles are really the same,” Heiden said.

Heiden said people have a constitutional right to know whether specific conduct is permitted or prohibited under the law. But he doesn't believe that distinction is clear in Baldacci's bill. And while it is already illegal to harm others or damage property, Heiden said it is not against the law to express ideas that many people might find offensive.

"That's protected under the First Amendment,” Heiden said. “It's ok for people to say horrible ideas and it's ok for groups of people to gather together to express horrible ideas. The government doesn't get to decide what ideas are acceptable and what ideas aren't."

But Maine wouldn't be plowing new ground here, according to Mary McCord, executive director of Georgetown University law school's Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.

“You just have to draft carefully so that what is prohibited is conduct and not speech,” said McCord, whose organization has worked with states on crafting legislation to respond to extremism and paramilitary groups.

Twenty-six states have anti-paramilitary laws that ban training camps, instruction on firearms or similar activities, McCord said. The latest was Vermont, which passed a "civil disorder" law this year in response to a paramilitary firearms training camp in that state that officials and local residents have been trying to shut down for several years.

Almost every state has laws prohibiting paramilitary groups from marching in uniform or acting like a private police force. But McCord says that since 2016, she's seen a dramatic increase in these groups engaging with the public, oftentimes while heavily armed. And such intimidating displays can infringe on others' rights.

"Many people don't feel safe having a demonstration or a march or a rally for causes they care about if they think they are going to be met there by heavily military clad, AR 15-toting militia members who are intimidating and threatening them,” she said. “Certainly people wouldn't feel comfortable to vote at polling places if you've got private militias out patrolling those polling places."

According to the Anti-Defamation League, the number of white supremacy incidents in Maine is rising. Three years ago there were 13. Last year there were 33.

The white nationalist behind the camp in Springfield, Christopher Pohlhaus, who leads a group known as the Blood Tribe, recently told the Fox Bangor television station that his organization is not a paramilitary group. And he said Baldacci's proposal won't stop him from exercising his First Amendment rights.

"If they want to take all of my guns, take em,” Pohlhaus told WVII. “I don't care because I can still run my mouth. See what I'm saying? None of this stuff affects me."

Legislative leaders have not taken a position on Baldacci's proposal but have said they are exploring whether additional laws are needed. The Bangor senator, meanwhile, said many residents and elected officials in the Springfield area have contacted him asking for help.

"So I think that there's a combination of really concerning factors here that we all really need to pay attention to,” Baldacci said.

The first hurdle for Baldacci will come this fall. That's when he will ask legislative leaders to add his bill to the list of measures to be considered during next year's shortened session.