CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The conduct of a band of self-styled "Robin Hoods" who feed about-to-expire meters while following parking enforcement officers is protected under the First Amendment, though the city of Keene has a right to pursue an injunction against them in the interests of public safety, New Hampshire's highest court ruled Tuesday.
City officials said they have no problem with the meter-feeding — a reaction to what the group calls "the king's tariff"— but want to protect the officers from harassment. Some said they've been bumped and assailed with profanities. The city argued for a buffer zone for its employees.
The Robin Hood group, which carries rolls of dimes and quarters, records its time outside and posts videos online, sometimes showing members following the parking enforcement officers. The not-so-merry band said it is protesting parking enforcement because it believes parking is not a criminal act and that parking tickets are a threat against people. The city said some of its officers felt they were harassed, including one who didn't feel safe and changed her work schedule to avoid them.
The state Supreme Court ruled that the Robin Hooders' "challenged conduct" was intended to draw attention to parking enforcement operations and to persuade the officers to leave their positions. There was no allegation that it involved violent conduct.
The justices agreed with a lower-court judge, who dismissed the city's claims of tortious interference, civil conspiracy and negligence, saying the group's actions were protected by the First Amendment.
However, the high court said the judge was wrong to deny the city's request for an injunction at the same time without considering all of the circumstances of the case. It vacated the denial and sent the case back to the judge to address whether the governmental interests and circumstances outlined by the city are enough for a safety zone or some other relief.
James Cleaveland, a Robin Hooder, accused the city of filing its lawsuit instead of trying to work it out with them first. He said the only reason he was following the officers was to feed meters where vehicles otherwise would have been ticketed. "They do things like divert their path," he said of the officers.
If the city decides to go back to court to pursue an injunction, "to me now, it's like a rights issue," Cleaveland said. "You've got to fight it at that point."
A message seeking comment was left with the city.
"Today's decision is a victory for First Amendment rights," said Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the New Hampshire chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a brief on the case. "The court recognized that government actors cannot sue citizens for alleged torts in an attempt to suppress legal, but unpopular, speech in public places. We must all remember that the First Amendment only means something if it protects popular and unpopular speech alike."