Forgetful residents of the New Hampshire city of Keene have found an ally with a group of activists who call themselves Free Keene.
These self-styled “Robin Hooders” run ahead of meter officers, and slip nickels into expired meters.
Free Keene members leave cards informing vehicle owners that they have been “Saved from the King’s Tariff!”
Yes, most would appreciate it if someone did this for them.
This, however, is not the end of the story.
While expressing their distaste for the “unfair tariff” by dropping nickels in meters, some of the more zealous “Free Keene” members took to sharing their distaste of meter-keepers, too.
Reports show that some Free Keene members harassed meter officers by following and videotaping them.
“How do you live with yourself?” one Free Keane member demanded of a weary meter-keeper.
Unsurprisingly—but unfortunately—the members of Free Keene became defendants in a case exploring the boundaries of free expression.
While the city allegedly took no issue with their practice of feeding expired meters, it is concerned about employee safety and work-related stress.
Citing allegations of physical contact and reports of meter officers who have quit under the activists’ spite—most notably an Army veteran who was told that he “condoned the droning of brown babies”—the city sought damages for costs of therapy sessions and asked the courts to impose a protective 50 foot “buffer zone” around the meter officers.
This June, however, the New Hampshire Supreme Court unreservedly defended Free Keene’s right to free speech—even if that involves, as Justice Robert J. Lynn noted, saying “nasty things to parking-meter people.”
The New Hampshire Supreme Court cited Snyder v. Phelps, the 2011 U.S. Supreme Court case finding that the Westboro Baptist Church couldn’t be liable in tort for pure speech on a public sidewalk.
As these two cases suggest, the First Amendment often protects unpopular speech.
Freedom of expression prevails, but the fight is not finished.
On remand, the New Hampshire trial court must consider the city’s claim that buffer zones are necessary for the protection of the meter officers.
What does this mean for the weary meter officers of Keene?
No one likes receiving a parking ticket—but no one likes being mercilessly taunted, either.
As it happens, the meter officers have friends with the right to free speech as well.
A growing community presence, centered around a Facebook page titled “Stop Free Keene!!!” has stepped up to fight fire with fire and protest Free Keene and their deplorable treatment of meter officials.
The lesson from Keene is that not every social ill and bout of bruised feelings requires government action.
Often, the best antidote to bad speech is more speech.