Profane political signs at Bow construction site spur debate: Free speech or foul play?

  • Michael Guglielmo stands in front of one of his flags in Belmont that depicts Donald Trump with a Rambo-like body. Ben Domaingue/ Monitor staff

  • A white van at a construction site on Clinton Street in Bow displayed a flag that read “F**k Biden and F**k Harris and F**k you too.” Note: Photo altered to obscure profanity. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 9/24/2021 3:31:56 PM

The large signs outside of the construction site on Route 13 in Bow have varied in size and message depending on the day and number of subcontractors working on the new single-family home.

It started with a red white and blue banner hanging from a forklift declaring “Unmask our children.”

Then, the messages became more blunt, and profane.

“F**k Biden,” read another large banner.

Yet, another said, “Biden is a jack,” with an image of a donkey.

Then, a white van at the 506 Clinton St. construction site, displayed a flag that read “F**k Biden and F**k Harris and F**k you too.”

School buses drive by the signs on the busy road and residents have complained. Despite their language, they are generally protected by the First Amendment as a form of free speech.

“We’ve had other signs similar to that that we’ve had complaints about as well,” said Matt Taylor, director of Community Development for the Town of Bow. “Unfortunately, we had talked to the town council and our ordinance doesn’t really address this.”

Bow is not alone. Local officials in other parts of the state, including nearby Belmont, have remained at odds with residents displaying political signage on their properties, most notably “F**k Biden” flags. Cities and towns across have struggled to balance free speech while attempting to enforce their zoning ordinances, especially for signage along public roadways.

“Most likely we’ll address it with a proposed amendment,” said Taylor. “It would most likely limit the size of signs on residential properties regardless of content.”

In 2015, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, U.S. Supreme Court determined that towns and cannot enforce “content-based restrictions” on speech, including on political signs. Even if the signage receives multiple complaints from residents, ordinances that regulate signs must be content-neutral in their scope and be able to pass a “strict scrutiny” review, justices ruled.

As a result, most towns opt to regulate signs based on size, appearance and location as opposed to their content.

In Bow, town records show the new house with four bedrooms and three and a half baths is being built by Paris Properties and NCK Properties. The construction of the 3,300 square-foot home is expected to cost about $500,000, according to the building permit. NCK Properties is owned by Zachary Whitten, of Londonderry, who did not respond to multiple inquiries for comment. Paris Properties is owned by John Fillion, of Hudson, who did not return calls seeking comment.

Less than 30 miles to the north, a Belmont man has also sparred with local officials over pro-Trump signage as well. Michael Guglielmo took to Facebook to air his complaints.

“I’ve been advised by the Town of Belmont due to a complaint by a Biden supporter offended by my F- Biden flag that I’ll be fined $250 a day until it’s taken down,” Guglielmo wrote.

Guglielmo has multiple American flags, as well as flags in support of Donald Trump affixed to trees on his property. He believes Belmont officials are limiting his political expression.

“That flag is an expression of my disdain for this current administration,” said Guglielmo, who was incarcerated for 15 years after he was involved with a standoff with a SWAT team in Manchester. “They’re circumventing people’s political expression through town codes.”

Officials in Belmont say they are enforcing town zoning ordinances based on the flag’s location. Code enforcement officials asked Guglielmo to move his flags, not to take them down.

“The town of Belmont went out to the property owner asking the resident to move the sign from the right of way,” said Belmont Town Administrator Jeanne Beaudin. “The town did not ask him to remove it.”

The town remains firm that its zoning ordinances do not violate residents’ freedom of speech and has tried to make that clear to people who see Guglielmo’s “F**k Biden” flag and complain.

“The town was not suggesting at all that we are trying to infringe on his freedom of speech,” said Beaudin. “Each time, the town has advised the caller that we cannot infringe on the right to freedom of speech.”

Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, said individuals have a clear right under the First Amendment to display their signs.

“A special respect for individual liberty in the home has long been part of this nation’s culture and law and has a special resonance when the government seeks to constrain a person’s ability to speak there,” Bissonnette said.

Bissonnette spoke generally and did not comment on the Bow or Belmont cases.

“People have a clear right under the First Amendment to place signs on their private property engaging in political speech, even if the language is colorful,” wrote Bissonnette. “History tells us that when the government has the power to suppress viewpoints it has often used this power to suppress the voices of historically marginalized communities.”

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