0309 Fall Mountain Charlestown Sweatshirt Withdrawal

In this provided photo collage, a Charlestown resident wears a sweatshirt bearing the #thefutureisours slogan. In a recent decision made by Charlestown Town Moderator Gabe St. Pierre, election and legal officials, apparel promoting or opposing the town's withdrawal from the Fall Mountain Regional School District will not be allowed at the Charlestown Senior Center tomorrow as voting occurs.

CHARLESTOWN — A decision to prohibit a controversial shirt slogan from Charlestown’s polling place has many residents asking questions about the legal line between self-expression and an intent to influence voters.

On Saturday, Charlestown Town Moderator Gabe St. Pierre notified voters that, in adherence to NH RSA 659:43-1, “the visible wearing of clothing that communicates the wearer’s position on the withdrawal of Charlestown from the Fall Mountain Regional School District” will be seen as a violation of the state statute and reported to the state Attorney General’s office.

The notice said that such unlawful communication will include clothing that, “contains words or images, including… apparel with the hashtags #thefutureisours, #unitedwestand, or #charlestownpride, which Charlestown voters are likely to associate with either pro- or anti-withdrawal views.”

In written correspondence with the Eagle Times, St. Pierre said that he and other election officials reached this decision following consultation with legal opinion.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has determined that a polling place is a nonpublic forum, and for that reason, restricting different forms of speech is permissible so long as the restriction is clearly articulated and viewpoint neutral,” St. Pierre stated.

The apparel that prompted this legal inquiry are Fall Mountain Regional School District shirts that were customized to include the slogan “#thefutureisours” on the back.

Charlestown resident Michelle Herrington began making the sweatshirts for students who wanted to show their support for keeping the Fall Mountain Regional School District together.

“We didn't want anything political,” Herrington said. “We wanted our children's voices heard, because they are the ones who are going to be affected by this.”

The 9-year-old daughter of Kelly Vigneau came up with the slogan.

“My friend Kelly Vigneau asked me to make one for her daughter,” Herrington told the Eagle Times. “Then my kids wanted one and [demand] just grew and grew.”

Controversy arose as students began wearing the sweatshirts in school, with some residents - including one who allegedly sent a complaint to the New Hampshire Board of Education - contending that parents shouldn’t be involving children in the political debate over Charlestown’s withdrawal proposal.

Whether the slogan fits the state’s definition of unlawful campaign material remains a topic of debate in the community. In itself, the slogan “#thefutureisours” does not appear to indicate a context, let alone a political position. However, given the popularity of these shirts among vocal opponents of Charlestown’s withdraw, arguably anyone who has followed the withdrawal debate on social media associates the slogan, as well as similar ones like “United We Stand” or “Five Towns Together” with a political position. Even non-internet users may have seen withdrawal opponents wearing the shirts or holding signs bearing the slogans at one of the four weekend rallies that withdrawal opponents held during February and early March.

Herrington said she has made over 350 sweatshirts and T-shirts so far, which she makes from her home.

“I have received over $700 in donations to make free t-shirts for students if they wanted one, because money shouldn't be a factor if a student wants one or not,” she said.

When considering whether the slogans violate state statute, St. Pierre said that “context is everything.”

“These same phrases (#thefutureisours and #unitedwestand) appear on yard signs and posters that urge voters to vote ‘no’ on the withdrawal,” St. Pierre said. “In recent days, posters have been put up in Charlestown bearing the phrase #charlestownpride, in support of withdrawal. These are the primary phrases we anticipate seeing on March 10.”

While noting the “significant gray area” between constitutional rights of free speech and the preservation of voting rights, St. Pierre said that his legal priority is to make the polling place a neutral and nonpartisan space.

“This must be and will remain a viewpoint neutral decision to secure for the citizens their fair right of suffrage,” St. Pierre said.

RSA 659:43 provides that “no person shall distribute, wear, or post at the polling place any campaign material [including articles of clothing] that is intended to influence the action of the voter within the building where the election is being held.”

Nicholas Chong Yen, assistant attorney general and head of New Hampshire’s Election Law Unit, said that their department is aware of the issue in Charlestown and have been in communication with election officials.

In a written reply to the Eagle Times, Yen said his office only reiterated the language contained in RSA 659:43. Yen did not respond to the question of how the Attorney General’s office intends to respond should a slogan-wearer be reported.

According to Charlestown’s notice, registered voters who refuse to comply with state statute will not be turned away from the polls. Instead, polling place supervisors will report the violators to the State Attorney General’s office, which could fine the offender up to $1,000.

In an informal online survey, most of the 20 Charlestown and Fall Mountain voters who responded said they plan to comply with the rule on Tuesday, though most either questioned the illegality of the slogans or the constitutionality of the state statute.

John Streeter, who is running for the one-year seat on the Charlestown selectboard on Tuesday, said that he believes the state law needs to be changed to not infringe on the First Amendment.

“I can appreciate people wishing to vote comfortably within the polls,” Streeter said. “And I accept that there are restrictions on all the bill of rights when it comes to the safety of the general public. [But] silently wearing a hashtag doesn’t rise to that level.”

Conversely, one could potentially influence an election without use of any campaign materials, Streeter said.

“Imagine if a moderator somewhere ran for selectboard and stood inside the polls, watching each and every person put a ballot into the machine?” Streeter said. “That seems more intimidating than a hashtag.”

Some residents said that they wouldn’t have worn their shirt even if the law allowed it, because they prefer not to bring tension into the polling place.

“It should be a space where people can feel like they have the freedom to vote as they see fit, said Acworth resident Cory St. Pierre. “Free of any pressures or influences on those decisions.”

Voting for town residents will be on Tuesday, March 10, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Charlestown Senior Center.

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