More than a month since protesters started gathering outside New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu’s home in Newfields over his order requiring masks, police issued summonses to nine people and arrested one of them under a new anti-picketing ordinance passed by the selectboard, which includes Sununu’s brother.
Skylar Bennett, 38, of Concord, said Wednesday he will contest his arrest on charges of criminal trespass and disorderly conduct at a candlelight vigil outside the home on Monday night.
“It’s clear this ordinance in Newfields was specifically to benefit King Sununu,” Bennett said in a message to The Associated Press. He added that people have been gathering to protest because Sununu "closed the state."
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"That was really a sign that things have really amplified," Sununu told NBC10 Boston and NECN on Thursday. "The boundaries have simply been pushed, not just here in New Hampshire, but across America."
Sununu issued an executive order that took effect Nov. 20 requiring masks to be worn in public spaces, indoors or outside, when social distancing isn’t possible because of the coronavirus pandemic.
He said at the time a mandate was appropriate, given the rising percentage of positive test results, the fact that the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 had doubled in the past two weeks, there were new outbreaks at five nursing homes, and an "incredibly alarming rate" of community transmission by people who aren’t showing symptoms. The order expires Jan. 15.
At least 100 people first appeared outside Sununu’s home to protest the order on Nov. 22. Frank Staples of the group Absolute Defiance said protesters gathered outside the governor’s house because Sununu had shut everything down, including the Statehouse, "so right now, this is the Statehouse."
"Unfortunately, folks have a perception that the goalposts have moved, that the goalposts of what's acceptable have moved, they really haven't," Sununu said. "Showing up at the Governor's house, in my backyard, at night, with a loaded gun, is still not okay."
There have been more protests since then. That led to the Dec. 22 passage of the ordinance by the three-member Newfields selectboard, which includes the governor’s brother, Michael Sununu.
The ordinance says "It is unlawful for any person to engage in picketing before or about the residence or dwelling of any individual in the town of Newfields." Violators are subject to a $100 fine.
The governor, who was not at home at the time of Monday’s gathering, had no involvement in the ordinance or in its enforcement, Sununu’s spokesperson, Benjamin Vihstadt, said in a statement.
Sununu did announce Wednesday that he has decided to cancel his 2021 outdoor Inaugural Ceremony due to safety concerns in the wake of the protests outside his home.
"Our first responsibility has to be to the safety of my family and the constituents and the citizens," Sununu said. "Anytime you cancel a 200-year tradition, it's not an easy decision."
Sununu and the Executive Council will instead be sworn-in during a small ceremony on Jan. 7, 2021. He plans to deliver his inaugural address that night.
According to the minutes of the Dec. 8 board meeting, Newfields Police Chief Nathan Liebenow said the Nov. 22 protest was described as "very boisterous and disturbing" and generated a number of complaints from residents. There had been at least three more gatherings since then, and Liebenow said more events were planned into January. He said the intention of the ordinance is not to suppress or violate anyone’s constitutional right to free speech.
Assistant Attorney General Matthew Broadhead, the chief legal counsel for the state police, said the the language of the ordinance was similar to one affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. He also described “the verbal harassment endured by the governor, his family and nearby residents,” according to the minutes.
The Newfields Police Department, in its press release Wednesday, said the nine people were advised of the town’s residential picketing ordinance and instructed to stop, but didn’t, so they were given summonses for violating it.
The police department did not provide names other than Bennett’s, but the NH Journal said one of its reporters, Chris Maidment, was given a summons, even though he repeatedly identified himself as a reporter covering the event. The Journal said it will contest the summons and fine.