Court Victory for Parking Meter Robin Hoods in NH

     (CN) – Putting change in parking meters to “save” motorists from getting tickets is a constitutionally protected activity, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled.
     The June 9 decision comes as a relief to James Cleaveland and the five co-defendants whom the city of Keene accused of negligence, civil conspiracy and tortuous interference.
     Keene said the six defendants followed its parking-enforcement officers, criticized them, called them names, videotaped them and urged them to quit their jobs.
     The defendants also stoked the city’s ire by putting change in meters to keep them from expiring.
     Flaunting their puckish interference, the defendants even left notes on the windshield that said, “Your meter expired! However, we saved you from the king’s tariff!”
     The parking officers repeatedly asked the defendants to stop their activities, complained to the police and reported the defendants to the city attorney.
     In its lawsuit, the city sought a 50-foot “safety zone” for the parking officers to prevent the defendants from “taunting, interfering, harassing and intimidating” them.
     The officers testified that the defendants sometimes followed them and stood only a foot away. One said he felt “backed into a corner,” and another said she is “tense and uptight all the time.”
     During the three-day trial, Keene offered to reduce the safety zone to 30 feet and later to 15 feet.
     A judge in Cheshire sided with the defendants, however, finding that their message deserved “special protection” under the First Amendment because it dealt with a public issue which they discussed in a public forum.
     On appeal, Keene contended that the defendants’ conduct amounted to “significantly harassing behavior under the guise of political expression” that the U.S. Constitution does not protect.
     The New Hampshire Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of the city’s lawsuit.
     “Here, the challenged conduct, like the respondents’ protected speech, is intended to draw attention to the city’s parking enforcement operations and to persuade the officers to leave their positions,” Justice James Bassett wrote for the court.
     Highlighting that there is no accusation of violence against the defendants, Bassett said that “conduct does not lose its protected character simply because it may embarrass others or coerce them into action.”
     “We hold, therefore, that the First Amendment shields the respondents from tort liability for the challenged conduct,” the decision states.
     Keene did secure a reversal, however, of its injunctive-relief demand.
     Bassett remanded the case for a determination of the city’s claims regarding the issue of a safe workplace for the officers.
     “We hold that the trial court erred when, solely because it had dismissed the underlying tortuous interference claim, it denied injunctive relief without considering all the factual circumstances of the case,” Bassett wrote.

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