LONDONDERRY — The arrest of a state Republican Party staffer who sported a chicken costume and allegedly harassed Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen during the Old Home Day parade has some calling foul.
Gilles Bissonnette, staff attorney for the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, said he will be following the case closely. “We are very concerned about the arrest,” he said Tuesday.
“While it is both appropriate and necessary to keep our elected politicians safe from harm, this does not mean that law enforcement has the right to suppress peaceful, non-threatening speech that is protected by the First Amendment by calling it disorderly conduct,” Bissonnette said. “This includes political speech that takes place in parades that are open to the public.”
Kathy Wagner, chair of the Londonderry Old Home Day Committee, said the “chicken man,” later identified as Michael Zona, 23, of Manchester, never registered with the committee to participate in the Old Home Day event. As the parade stepped off from the Londonderry High School parking lot on Saturday, parade officials quickly confiscated Zona’s sign, which read “Jeanne Shaheen: Too Chicken for Town Hall.”
After weaving in and out of the parade path for a couple minutes, Zona was said to have left, but later resurfaced, Wagner said, flapping his wings just past Lions Hall. Event officials reported that the “chicken” was being chased by several young people carrying Shaheen campaign signs.
“Then we began getting calls that he was harassing Shaheen: not touching her but getting into her face and chanting,” Wagner said. “We notified the police.”
Police Detective Chris Olson Shortly said Zona was arrested just before 11 a.m. Saturday. He’s due in Derry District Court on Sept. 8, when he faces misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct.
Police declined to hold Zona’s sign as evidence, so members of the Old Home Day Committee plan to hold onto it as a memento of Saturday’s excitement.
“We can’t stop people from expressing themselves on the sidelines, but this person didn’t belong in the parade,” Wagner said. “I think it sends a strong message to both parties: if you’re going to come to Londonderry and act like that, you just may find yourself in a mug shot.”
In a written statement provided to NHGOP spokesman Lauren Zelt Monday night, Zona said: “I believe Senator Jeanne Shaheen should be holding town halls and I have a First Amendment right to express that point of view. I wasn’t bothering anyone. I wasn’t disturbing anyone. In fact, I got a good deal of encouragement from people along the parade route.”
Zona has also shared his views via social media.
“It’s been 714 days, 19 hours, 18 minutes and 20 seconds since Sen. Shaheen’s last town hall meeting,” Zona posted on Twitter on Aug. 13.
A person in a chicken suit paid a visit to a Shaheen campaign event in Keene last Thursday, holding a sign stating “Jeanne Shaheen too chicken for Town Halls.”
Chris Galdieri, assistant professor of politics at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics in Goffstown, said Saturday’s incident is hardly the first time a political demonstrator flew the coop.
“I think chicken suits have a pretty venerable history in politics,” Galdieri said on Tuesday.
In 1992, a man in a chicken suit calling himself “Chicken George” taunted President George H.W. Bush over his refusal to debate with Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton. The chicken, actually played by several different activists, was ordered to cease and desist by police on various occasions.
“Chicken George” was later referenced in an episode of the television show, “The West Wing.”
And in 2010, Nevada state election officials reportedly banned chicken suits altogether. The ban followed a series of incidents where a costumed heckler targeted Republican Senate candidate Sue Lowden after some took issue with her comments suggesting people barter for their medical care, “my grandfather would have offered the doctor a chicken.”
“I think when you’re engaging in unusual tactics, you do tend to get more notice,” said Galdieri. “Part of the reason for this is the fact that we live in a more paranoid world. You don’t know who’s under that suit.”
He added that while freedom of speech must be maintained, there’s a time and a place for everything.
“When you’re dealing with a parade, you need to deal with the proper permits,” Galdieri said. “And if you’re not supposed to be somewhere, then it becomes an issue not just of your free speech, but everyone’s.”
A poll last week at UnionLeader.com asked the question: How do you feel about candidates who deploy operatives to tail opponents to heckle, mock, or catch in video bloopers?
Of the 1,011 who voted, 834 responded “out of bounds.” A total of 177 said “fair game.”