Gilmanton yard sign dispute brings up bigger 1st Amendment questions

  • Brett Currier holds up a sign Thursday that the town of Gilmanton asked him to take down. Caitlin AndrewsMonitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 3/1/2018 10:50:26 PM

When Brenda Currier received a letter from the town of Gilmanton asking her to take down a sign criticizing the select board, she said it felt personal.

It’s not because tension has been building between the town and its chief for more than a year, beginning with cutting Gilmanton police Chief Matt Currier’s voter-approved pay increase and culminating in a recent restraining order Currier brought against the town after the select board requested information about department officers’ schedules and other personal information.

It’s not because she’s the police chief’s mother, although an initial glance at the sign might make you believe otherwise (it reads, “WE SUPPORT GILMANTON POLICE EVEN IF THE SELECTMEN DONT.”)

For Currier, who said she frequently speaks at select board meetings, the letter was just another way the town was trying to stifle dissent.

“I was dumbfounded,” she said about receiving the letter. “I’ve never seen a select board take down a sign for political reasons. People put out signs to support the library, different articles all the time, and they’ve never been asked to take it down.”

A handful of residents, including Currier, received the same letter on Feb. 14, which stated that other types of signs did not meet the town’s zoning criteria for businesses or industry or the state’s definition of political signs. If residents did not remove their signs by Feb. 22, they would be fined $275 for every day the signs remained up, the letter said.

Currier might have been dumbfounded, but Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, had stronger words.

“I haven’t seen a First Amendment violation like this in the five years I’ve worked at the ACLU,” he said. “It’s exceptional that they’d tell them to remove political signs on their own private property; I haven’t seen that in my experience.”

Bissonnette has certainly seen municipalities violate residents’ free speech rights before: The ACLU has weighed in on cases from Alton – where resident Jeffrey Clay has been arrested at least twice for criticizing the local select board – to Pembroke – where now-deceased resident David Pearl was threatened with removal from a meeting after he criticized the school board for how it handled the news of an employee’s arrest.

But what makes the Gilmanton instance particularly egregious, Bissonnette said, is the established protections for free speech. He cited cases like Reed v. Town of Gilbert and Rideout v. Gardner.

He pointed out the state law, RSA 664:2, referenced in the letters merely has to do with disclosure that political signs are geared toward advocating “the success or defeat of any party, measure or person at any election,” not with what kind of content is allowed on signs.

“That’s different from removal of the sign itself,” Bissonnette said. “That’s unconstitutional. Individuals have the right to put up signs on their property, period.”

Bissonnette said he expected to hear back from the town on whether the letters would be retracted by Friday.

According to town documents, the town reached out to the attorney general’s office to seek clarity on whether they applied the state law correctly the day after they sent the letters out. A letter from Assistant Attorney General Matthew Broadhead to Bill Tobin, Gilmanton’s code enforcement officer, found the signs “do not meet the definition of ‘political advertising’ under RSA 664:2, VI.”

But by the time the letters came out, some residents had already taken down their signs. Currier, along with Gilmanton residents Sandi and Don Guarino, went a different route – they edited their signs to make them more “political,” with lines like “Vote yes on Article #31” and “Political Advertising.”

Currier said the signs were created mainly out of frustration: in addition to the ongoing tension with the police department, Gilmanton started cutting back on public comment sections at their meetings around two years ago, limiting the kind of discourse that used to be available between board members and constituents, she said.

It’s one of the ways public bodies can limit public criticism.

Municipalities aren’t required to provide public comment under the state’s right-to-know laws, which only require that meetings of public bodies be open and that government records be available to the public, according to the New Hampshire Municipal Law Association.

Boards can also limit comment to just items on the agenda, but if a general public comment session is placed on the agenda, that creates “a ‘forum’ for speech, and those seeking to speak have constitutional protection for their freedom of speech,” according to the NHMA website.

Other bodies have tried other, questionably legal methods. Donna Green, president of the School District Governance Association of NH, said she’s seen multiple instances of school boards writing unconstitutional ethics policies, including provisions that members cannot speak negatively against board actions – even if they voted against them – or not allowing board members to speak to the press.

Green should know – the Timberlane Regional School Board tried to implement similar policies when she was on the board, she said. Those policies were later rolled back after the ACLU got involved, Green said. Her history with the board has long been contentious; Green’s case that school budget and salary information be made public made its way to the Supreme Court, where she won. Green has since resigned from the board.

But while public comment sessions aren’t required, Bissonnette said it’s “unfortunate when towns decide to close down a public forum for speech.”

And Green said it can have a long-lasting effect on board’s ability to hear from their constituents.

“It’s chilling,” she said, “not just to board members who want to speak up, but to their constituents. The people they represent are being hampered by this.”

Gilmanton Town Administrator Heidi Duval, Gilmanton town counsel Walter Mitchell and select board Chairman Stephen McWhinnie could not be reached for comment.

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, or on ter at @ActualCAndrews.)

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