One person was arrested and nine others were fined $100, including a reporter, after a protest over a statewide mask mandate outside Gov. Chris Sununu’s home in Newfields on Monday night.
The police crackdown came in response to a new town ordinance pushed by Newfields Police Chief Nathan Liebenow and approved by the select board last week that prohibits picketing outside a private residence.
State and local police responded to the Hemlock Court area as a small group of protesters gathered for the event described as a “vigil” by organizer Frank Staples, founder of the group Absolute Defiance.
Newfields police Lt. Katie O’Brien said group members were informed about the new ordinance and what would happen if they remained outside the governor’s residence.
“They were told about the possibility of arrests. They were given several options to depart the area. This went on for about a half-hour,” O’Brien said.
Police had also received complaints that protesters were “hollering” and disturbing the neighborhood, she said.
Newfields police cited nine individuals for picketing and issued $100 fines.
Skylar Bennett, 38, of Concord, was also charged with disorderly conduct and criminal trespass for allegedly trespassing on the Sununu property, O’Brien said.
Chris Maidment, a reporter for NH Journal, an online news publication, was among those cited and fined. In a series of tweets posted while covering the event, Maidment reported that state police had ordered Newfields police to ticket him for “picketing.”
At one point, Maidment tweeted that while the event was supposed to be a “candlelight vigil,” state police had “turned it into a protest.”
“Our reporter was doing his job, covering a local, New Hampshire story that deals with both the current debate over COVID policy and the fundamental freedoms protected by the U.S. Constitution. We will not be paying the fine. We will see the town of Newfields in court,” Michael Graham, NH Journal’s managing editor, told the publication in its story on the protest.
O’Brien declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding Maidment’s citation.
Staples, the protest organizer, has argued that the new ordinance violates First Amendment rights. But O’Brien said that protesters should be using other public places like the State House to express their views — not the governor’s private residence.
“This is not appropriate. It’s just not the appropriate venue,” she said.
Staples said he and the others should not have been ticketed because they followed the police orders. After being advised that they couldn’t remain outside Sununu’s home, Staples said they decided to turn it into a “march” and walked up the street and then back again.
At one point, while some in the group were waiting for others to walk back before leaving, Staples said police started issuing the tickets.
He said police began showing up in “riot gear.”
“It looked like Storm Troopers. They were all in triple file,” he said.
Staples refuses to pay the ticket.
“We’re not paying these fines. We’ve already got legal representation,” he said.
Bennett, who was also fined, denied that he trespassed on the governor’s property.
He said that while waiting for the person who drove him to the protest to get his ticket he stood on the sidewalk and tried to gather information from police. He said he was charged with trespassing because at one point he stepped off the sidewalk onto the grass as he attempted to get information from a trooper who refused to give his name and badge number.
Despite the ticket and arrest, Bennett said police treated him “very well.”
“This is not an anti-police movement whatsoever,” he said. “The police were nice to me and we had a great interaction. There wasn’t any sort of physical confrontation. It was a peaceful thing,” Bennett said.
In a statement, Ben Vihstadt, the governor’s spokesman, said Sununu wasn’t involved in the new ordinance, which was passed by all three Newfields selectmen, including his brother, Michael Sununu.
“Governor Sununu and his family were not at home at the time of the protest. The governor had no involvement in the ordinance brought forth by Newfields Police Chief Liebenow and passed by the Select Board, nor does the governor have any involvement in enforcement of the ordinance. Any questions regarding the ordinance and its enforcement should be directed to the town of Newfields,” Vihstadt said.