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In Gilmanton, Lawn Sign Scuffle Turns Into Debate Over the First Amendment

ACLU of New Hampshire
The town of Gilmanton recently warned residents who displayed these signs that they were violating local zoning rules and, potentially, state political advertising disclosure laws.

Town meeting season can bring out all kinds of local tensions — spurring battles over property taxes, school budgets and more. In Gilmanton, it’s also led to a burgeoning dispute over lawn signs and the First Amendment.

It all stems from a series of long-simmering frustrations over the town’s management of its police department. As reported by the Laconia Daily Sun, the police chief recently filed a restraining order against the select board after the selectmen issued a series of directives “to require the police chief to keep the board apprised of such department matters as staffing levels, length of shifts, use of cruisers and when officers may travel beyond town limits.”

Don Guarino, a former selectman, and a group of other Gilmanton residents are also losing patience with what they view as repeated attempts to undermine the police department's authority.

Among other grievances, the group is upset that the select board didn’t follow through on a raise for the police chief — even though voters approved the pay increase at last year’s Town Meeting — and think selectmen are trying to "micromanage" the day-to-day activities of the department

Feeling like their complaints weren't being heard, Guarino and his fellow frustrated residents did what plenty of people do when they want to send a message to their fellow citizens: They put up lawn signs. Theirs read, “WE SUPPORT GILMANTON POLICE EVEN IF THE SELECTMEN DON’T.”

Soon after, Guarino and others who posted the signs got letters from the local building inspector warning that their posters violated the local zoning code and potentially state political advertising disclosure laws. The letter warned that the signs needed to be removed by Feb. 22, or residents could face fines of $275 for every day they stay up thereafter. 

“It’s threatening,” Guarino said. “It says that if you don’t do something about it, we’re going to start fining you. So, it wasn’t necessarily a nice letter.”

On Monday, the town of Gilmanton got a stern warning of its own from the ACLU of New Hampshire, demanding that the town retract its letter telling residents to remove the signs. 

Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the ACLU of New Hampshire, says the town’s original letter telling residents to remove the signs was “one of the clearest First Amendment violations” he’s ever encountered in New Hampshire.

“I’ve just never seen anything like this as an ACLU lawyer,” Bissonnette said. “You can’t tell individuals that they can’t engage in political speech on their own property. And to the extent that there’s an ordinance that would even bar this type of political speech, that ordinance itself would be unconstitutional.”

Separately, the New Hampshire attorney general's office has told the town that the signs would not be required to comply with state political advertising disclosure rules, because they don’t “expressly advocate for or against a particular party, measure or person.”

Local officials have not returned calls seeking comment on the situation. A discussion about “Signs” was supposed to happen at Monday’s regularly scheduled select board meeting, but the meeting itself was abruptly canceled “due to illness.”

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