The Universal Notebook: Do the right thing


Last week, folks in Scarborough resoundingly voted to send three School Board members packing in a recall election that was nominally about their competence, but actually about their support for the superintendent of schools in a policy dispute with the high school principal.

Students, faculty and voters all lined up behind the principal. The recalled three backed the superintendent.

Having served six years on a school committee, I know from experience that elected school officials are largely dependent on their superintendent and business manager for information. It’s very easy to follow the leader blindly. The recalled three followed their superintendent right off a cliff. She should probably jump now, too. It’s the right thing to do when you have lost public confidence.

Maine news has been filled lately with stories about ethical issues, dilemmas and lapses. Take, for instance, the case of the mayor of Waterville, who himself now faces recall on June 12 over a history of alt-right tweets and posts on social media attacking gun-control advocates, immigrants and Muslims, and supporting racists and conspiracy theories.

The Waterville situation – a mayor losing his bank job and facing recall – was created in part by Donald Trump, whose inflammatory rhetoric and surprise election has emboldened right-wing extremists to air views they might once have realized would get them in trouble. Word to the wise: If you hold extreme social and political views, it’s best to keep them to yourself or be self-employed.

No issue at the moment is as touchy as sexual misconduct, so I was not surprised last week when the president of the University of Southern Maine ordered paintings by a convicted sex offender removed from an exhibition at the school’s Lewiston campus for fear that the man’s inclusion in the show might make victims of sexual crimes uncomfortable.

I’m not sure, though, how anyone would know the artist was a sex offender. And I was not surprised when the Union of Maine Visual Artists protested the removal of the paintings (which were not themselves offensive) as censorship.

A tough call, but where and when does punishment of a sex offender end? Tried, convicted, served time, on sex offender registry for life. Isn’t that enough?

The First Amendment only prohibits the government, of which the state university system is included, from infringing on the individual right of free speech, so freedom of speech is not the issue in Westbrook, where a bookstore owner made news for withdrawing books by Dominican-American author Junot Diaz from the shelves because of accusations of sexual misconduct against him.

A bookstore owner has every right to decide what books to offer for sale, but if every book were vetted for questionable ethical behavior by its author, we’d lose a lot of great literature.

On the local literary front, Maine Media Collective, owners of Maine, Maine Home & Design, Old Port and Art Collector Maine magazines, has been rocked by revelations of sexual misconduct by one of its owners. As the story of a toxic work environment at the trendy publications spread from alternative media to the mainstream, advertisers jumped shipped and sponsored events had to be canceled.

But what bothers me as much as the allegations of sexual harassment is that some people who have worked for the company have apparently been harassed by people who should know better simply because of their association with the company. Blaming employees for the sins of the boss, punishing everyone for the behavior of a few, is just as wrong as sexual harassment.

Finally, though I would very much like to see Democratic candidate Lucas St. Clair replace Bruce Poliquin as Maine’s Second District congressman, I fear he and/or some supporters may have undermined his candidacy by running ethically questionable television ads. The ads in question are campaign ads disguised as issue ads, or maybe it’s the other way around.

When I first saw the Maine Outdoor Alliance ad about Lucas St. Clair and creation of the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument I assumed it was a campaign ad. But then the final pitch was not “Vote for Lucas St. Clair in the June primary,” it was “Call the Trump administration and tell them to leave our Katahdin Monument alone.”

The trouble is Trump is already leaving the Katahdin Monument alone. The St. Clair campaign has denied knowledge of the ad, but one of the people associated with Maine Outdoor Alliance was the best man at St. Clair’s wedding.

I’m sad to say the only way St. Clair’s candidacy survives this ethical lapse is for him to admit that someone made a bad mistake. Otherwise, this misguided attempt to promote Lucas St. Clair may end up handing the Democratic nomination to his opponent, Jared Golden.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.