Keene City Council set to enter into chalking-free speech fray
KEENE — A proposed graffiti ordinance is up for discussion at Thursday night’s City Council meeting.
Last week the proposal from City Councilor Randy L. Filiault to limit graffiti downtown came before the Municipal Services, Facilities and Infrastructure Committee.
In a unanimous vote, the committee agreed to refer the matter to the full City Council.
“There’s no ordinance from graffiti in the streets and sidewalks, and that’s exactly what I’m asking for,” Filiault said Wednesday.
He wants the City Council to request the city attorney to look into drafting an enforceable ordinance.He said the ordinance could diffuse the heated chalking controversy by prohibiting the use of chalk on streets and sidewalks in the downtown business district. Currently, graffiti is only prohibited on buildings and monuments, he said.“There is no city ordinance prohibiting chalk, paint or crayons on streets and sidewalks. We need a modern look at graffiti. Right now sidewalks and streets are not included,” Filiault said. “Even chalk is made out of different materials. Some are easily removable and some are not.”
The issue came to a head on June 3 when a man holding a chalking event in Central Square was assaulted and severely injured.
Free speech violation?
In a letter to the Keene City Council, the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union said such an ordinance would be a violation of freedom of speech.
“The NHCLU certainly understands the City Council’s concern about this serious confrontation in one of the most prominent areas of the city. But I also hope that the city’s response is not to broadly suppress peaceful speech in public places — including speech that is political in nature and is necessary to a functioning democracy. Here, perhaps the more tailored response to this act of violence would be to more aggressively enforce existing criminal laws that prohibit the precise physical confrontation that occurred on June 3,” wrote head attorney of the N.H. CLU, Gilles Bissonnette.
Filiault said he disagrees.
“While I certainly respect it, I have done research, and the Supreme Court does allow graffiti ordinances as long as you allow an alternative form of protest,” such as holding up a sign, Filiault said.
He also said chalk drawings of a penis found Tuesday morning outside of a candy store downtown are not covered under free speech.
Opponents of the proposed ordinance have argued that it would ban children from playing hopscotch on the sidewalk.
Free Keene blogger Ian Freeman said the proposed chalking ban — especially in response to comments Filiault made recently on a local radio show about banning hopscotch downtown — has prompted the forming of a Hopscotch Preservation Society in Keene.
Filiault said children today don’t even know what hopscotch is, and if they wanted to play, they can in their neighborhoods. The ordinance he has proposed pertains to the downtown business district.
“Realistically, this day and age, kids think hopscotch is an app on an iPhone,” Filiault said. “The hopscotch thing is a smokescreen for the Free Keene activists that oppose it. They are the same ones that will draw a penis in front of the candy store and call it free speech.”
Freeman said he doesn’t know who made the obscene drawings.
“It’s not associated with Free Keene in any way that I am aware of,” Freeman said. “I tend to stick to smiley faces and hearts and peace symbols, symbols of peace.”
The majority of the chalk drawings found downtown are pleasant and positive, he said.
Freeman said the obscene chalk drawings are upsetting to people and don’t belong in front of a business.
In his opinion the drawing appears to be the work of a drunken person, not an activist, but it is still free speech.
“It is free speech. I think it’s tacky,” Freeman said. “With free speech can sometimes come some ugliness. … But we have to protect the people that say something ugly in order to protect free speech.”