Resident defends right to display racist sign

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Drivers turning into Fosterville Road from Route 107 look to their left at their own risk. There, just inside a garage beside an old farmhouse, is a freestanding hand-lettered sign, large enough to be easily seen from the road. On the upper right is a photo of U.S. President Barack Obama. On the upper left is a caricature of an African-American, labeled “Sambo.”

But, it is the words that have the most shock value. The sign contains a racially-offensive term, and accuses Obama of engaging in sexually-deviant behavior. It ends by encouraging people to “Join Bridgton Ku Klux Klan.”

Around 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, Bridgton Police Officer Phil Jones responded to a complaint at the 8 Fosterville Road property, listed as owned by Francis and Rosemary Houston, both of whom died in 2008. Bridgton Police Chief Kevin Schofield didn’t have the details of the complaint, and Officer Jones was unavailable for comment.

But, the man who lives at the farmhouse and has been selling some of its contents was freely willing to talk. He declined to give his name when asked by a reporter for The News, but he identified himself as “Pratt.”

Pratt said a friend who lives in the South asked if he could display the sign, and Pratt agreed. He also agreed to sell some Klu Klux Klan items, including a padded cross with a Confederate flag logo that Pratt said is designed to be lit aflame at rallies and other events. He held up the cross to show it off.

“You can buy these things all over the South,” he said. “I have one of them. They’re reproductions” of the types of crosses that were used by the Klan during its heyday, he said, and can be had for around $15.

Pratt gave the man’s first name as “Chet,” and said Chet sold a fair amount of items when he was visiting last weekend. He said Chet plans on his next visit to bring Klu Klux Klan brochures to pass out to anyone who’s interested, in the hopes of rallying support for the Klan’s cause in the Bridgton area. Pratt said there’s an active contingent of mostly young people in the region who subscribe to the tenets of the “White Power” movement, believing that African Americans bring with them crime and violence wherever they settle. He offered numerous cases, and particularly singled out what he said was the negative impact of the Somali population in Lewiston.

Pratt said the police were called after a man driving by in a pick-up truck stopped and attempted to remove the sign from the garage. Pratt stopped him. Pratt said Officer Jones initially said the sign was illegal because of its racial content, and also because it constituted disturbing the peace.

Neither reason rang true for Pratt, who invoked his right to freedom of speech. Officer Jones left the scene, and Schofield said that once his report is complete, the department will forward it to the Cumberland County District Attorney, the Maine Attorney General and the U.S. Secret Service for possible prosecution.

“Frankly, it’s oftentimes a very fine but blurry line between what is free speech and what can cross over into criminality,” said Chief Schofield. State disorderly conduct laws or the Maine Civil Rights Act might apply, or they might not, he said. In addition, the U.S. Secret Service, part of the Department of Homeland Security, investigates suspected violations of the federal law against making threats against the President of the United States.

When contacted about the sign, neither the AG’s office or the Secret Service were aware of it. Brenda Kielty, an AG spokeswoman, said her office seeks restraining orders against anyone who violates the Maine Civil Rights Act, who “commit acts of violence, threaten violence, damage property, threaten to damage property, or trespass on the property of another when this conduct is motivated by bias based on race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, physical or mental disability or sexual orientation.” Violators of this civil crime can be fined up to $5,000.

Under the federal Class D felony offense for Threatening the President of the United States, a person is guilty for “knowingly and willfully” mailing or otherwise making "any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States.” The website Wikipedia states that “Because the offense consists of pure speech, the courts have issued rulings attempting to balance the government's interest in protecting the President with free speech rights under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”

And in a column by John Kavanaugh in The National Catholic Weekly, he writes, “If you search the Internet for the phrase ‘Obama is . . .,’ the top six possibilities offered are ‘antichrist,’ ‘idiot,’ ‘racist,’ ‘liar,’ ‘Hitler,’ ‘socialist.’ A search for ‘Obama’ and ‘destroying America’ yields 719,000 sites.”

Pratt said he is just one of many who believe the truth has been kept from the American people about Obama’s real background, and said he’s received encouraging comments from many people who’ve seen the sign. A large American flag flies in front of the farmhouse, which has a sign over the front door saying, “Grassy Slope Farm” and “Maine Indian Museum.”

He points to a Portland Press Herald newspaper clipping from 2008 displayed by the door, recounting a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe into a Craigslist posting offering to sell Maine Indian scalps “to white people only.” Pratt said he had the scalps, and cited the FBI’s involvement as just another example of government interference into the lives of its citizens.

“I have a right to sell all of this stuff,” he said.

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