Following the violent counter-protests at the Straight Pride Parade that took place in late August, the Boston City Council is considering issuing a ban on individuals wearing masks, hoods, or other devices to conceal one’s identity at protests.
The city ordinance was proposed by Councilor Tim McCarthy, who argued that protesters were primarily using face masks in order to commit violent crimes, especially against police officers. McCarthy also emphasized the egregious acts of the counter-protests, which included throwing bottles of urine, bleach, and spitting at the police officers trying to diffuse the situation.
Boston would be taking after Virginia state law in this ordinance, as Virginia completely bans the use of any garment that would conceal one’s identity—this ban, though, is not protest specific. There are exceptions to this law, however, that allow covering one’s face for religious purposes, for theatrical productions, as well as during holidays.
The Boston proposal will also have similar exceptions as McCarthy called for a “common sense” prohibition that will allow face masks for religious purposes and other acceptable reasons, just not in cases where violence can occur.
Those who oppose the proposal claim that the ban would be taking away protesters’ civil liberties and that the ban is, overall, unnecessary. Many have also commented that the police at the Straight Pride Parade overreacted with aggressive tactics.
This ban is not justifiable.
People might wear masks in order to protect their identity out of fear of being fired from their jobs for expressing their beliefs—not to commit violent crimes. Protesters have said if the right to conceal one’s identity is taken away, they will be risking their own safety. Being harassed by the specific groups you are protesting is a real possibility, and most individuals hide their identity simply in order to prevent this.
People opposed to the proposed legislation may be incorrect is asserting that the ban is a violation of the First Amendment.
As “freedom of expression” is not narrowly defined in the constitution, state police powers can step in and make laws that regulate behavior for the betterment of the health, safety, morals, and general welfare of their habitants.
Several other states, such as Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia, also have laws that prohibit face masks on all public property, not just at protests. Because of this, I don’t think Massachusetts would have much trouble passing the legislation constitutionally.
And this isn’t Boston’s only piece of proposed legislation that challenges the First Amendment.
Earlier this week Representative Daniel J. Hunt filed a bill that would make saying the “B” word in a derogatory way an offense that could result in up to a $200 fine.
While Hunt said that he filed the bill on behalf of a constituent under Massachusetts’ citizens’ right to free petition, it is still alarming that there seems to be a growing trend of disregarding the First Amendment in these particular situations.
The success of the face mask ban’s goal of preventing protest violence is also questionable.
A similar face mask ban was recently issued in Hong Kong and instead of extinguishing protest violence, it had the reverse effect where more protesters started wearing masks and violence only increased.
While it has to be said that Hong Kong is an entirely different polity in comparison to Boston, there is a common humanistic nature in rebelling against what one sees as unjust. Individuals in Boston have already shown opposition—people wore face masks at the city council proposal hearing in protest.
Additionally, if this ban is to be passed, there will need to be very clear outlining of what types of “masks” will be banned. Will this prohibit wearing a wig? Wearing fake glasses? The uncertainty is dangerous and protesters could become victim to unknowingly breaking the law.
While I do believe that Boston’s police officers deserve respect and safety throughout protests, I think there is a bit of hypocrisy is demanding that protesters reveal themselves while officers conceal their own actions in the refusal to wear body cameras, as WBUR reported. The article states that police officers did not have to wear body cameras because they were working overtime, and cameras are only required for regular shifts.
Further, there is also already Massachusetts legislation that more harshly punishes those who perpetrate violence while concealing their identity, so is this ban even needed?
I don’t think so.
Considering the ban’s challenges the first amendment, paired with its likely failure of reducing violence, it’s for the best that the proposal be struck down.
Enough with the banning, Boston.
Graphic by Ikram Ali / Heights Editor