In Boston and Hong Kong, debate over masks

Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images

It’s nearly Halloween, so what better time for the Metro Minute to dive into the meaning of masks.

At a spirited hearing Monday, Boston city councilors debated a proposal to ban the wearing of masks in public spaces. As the Globe’s Milton Valencia reported, proponents say protesters should not be allowed to conceal their identities when committing violent acts, as some did at the so-called Straight Pride Parade in August. Opponents say the rule would limit free expression.

Eight thousand miles away in Hong Kong, the legality of face masks has been a topic of sharp debate amid the violent pro-democracy protests roiling the semi-autonomous territory.


Hong Kong’s besieged leader, Carrie Lam, instituted a ban on masks at rallies earlier this month, calling the move “an effective deterrent to radical behavior.’’ Paint is included in the definition of “face covering.”

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The sweeping ordinance used in Hong Kong dates to 1922, when it was a British colony, and has not been used since deadly riots in the late 1960s.

Protesters have flouted the ban, even at peaceful marches, fearing retribution at work or being denied access to schooling, public housing and other government-funded services. Many are also concerned their identities could be shared with the Communist Party’s massive state-security apparatus in mainland China, where high-tech surveillance, including facial recognition technology, is ubiquitous.

Some young protesters wear full gas masks and goggles to protect against tear gas. Others defy the ban with humor, donning Guy Fawkes, Winnie the Pooh, and LeBron James masks at rallies.

In the US, many states already have variations of anti-mask laws. Massachusetts, for example, exacts tougher punishments when a mask is used in a crime.


In Alabama, it has been illegal since 1949 to wear a mask in public except for such occasions as Halloween and Mardi Gras. That law was enacted in direct response to the Ku Klux Klan. In Ohio, it is illegal for two or more people to wear “white caps, masks or other disguises” while committing a misdemeanor.

California had a broad anti-mask law for decades until the Iranian revolution in 1979. Iranian-Americans sued to block the law, saying it kept them from shielding their identities for safety purposes in protests against the new leadership in Iran. The law was struck down.

Material from The Associated Press and The New York Times was included in this report. Roy Greene can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Roy.Greene.