Newfields’ Select Board passed an ordinance last week prohibiting picketing at private residences. The move follows weeks of peaceful mask protests outside the home of Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who lives in Newfields.
“It is unlawful for any person to engage in picketing before or about the residence or dwelling of any individual in the Town of Newfields,” the signed ordinance reads. Violators will be subject to fines up to $100 for each offense. Chris Sununu’s brother, Michael, is a Select Board member in Newfields and appears on the signed ordinance.
“The governor had nothing to do with this,” says Ben Vihstadt, spokesman for Governor Chris Sununu. In attendance at a December Select Board meeting discussing the ordinance were multiple top officials from Sununu’s administration: Colonel Nate Noyes from the New Hampshire State Police, Commissioner Robert Quinn from the Department of Safety and Matthew Broadhead, an attorney from the Attorney General’s office.
Absolute Defiance, the group responsible for starting the protests outside Sununu’s Newfields home, tells NHJournal in an email that they will be holding a ‘candlelight vigil’ on Monday evening in response to the passage of the ordinance. Frank Staples, who has organized several of the mask protests, calls the ordinance “rather juvenile.”
“It’s obviously a direct response and attack on the exercise of our 1st Amendment right,” Staples tells NHJournal.
Chief Nathan Liebenow of the Newfields Police Department explained to the Select Board in a Dec. 8 meeting that enforcement efforts would be “aggressive in nature,” but that violators would first be warned and asked to comply. Non-compliant protestors could then be subject to arrest for disorderly conduct.
According to the minutes from that meeting, the chief explained that “the intention of this ordinance is not to suppress or violate anyone’s Constitutional Right to Free Speech. It is an effort to balance the peoples’ right to live without disturbance and harassment in their own homes.”
Commissioner Robert Quinn, who leads the Department of Safety in New Hampshire, attended the Select Board meeting and “respectfully requested the Board support and grant Chief Liebenow’s ordinance request.” Quinn cited unsustainable costs of protecting the governor’s home with State Police resources.
Select Board member Jamie Thompson noted that “he believes it to be Constitutional as long as people are allowed to march instead of concentrating on a particular neighborhood.”
Attorney Matthew Broadhead from the Attorney General’s office says the ordinance will pass legal muster. At the Dec. 8 meeting, he explained that “[t]his ordinance is near verbatim to one that the Supreme Court had affirmed in a prior case.” He went on to describe the “verbal harassment endured by the Governor, his family, and nearby residents.”
Michael Sununu, according to the minutes, “responded that he has serious concerns with passing an ordinance in one night, regardless of this ordinance, regardless of the people sitting in the room. As a citizen of the Town, I would be very concerned with the Select Board deciding to, in one night, read and enact an ordinance without giving the public sufficient time to address whatever the issue is in that ordinance.”
For the past several weeks, protestors have gathered across the street from the home of the governor with signs and bullhorns, protesting against a mask mandate implemented by Sununu in November. Noise complaints prompted the State Police to threaten disorderly conduct arrests for use of the bullhorn recently, after which protests returned to a quiet and peaceful picket.
The Newfields Police Department declined to comment for this story until the lieutenant or chief are available, and requests for comment to Michael Sununu have not been answered.