Civil Rights Group Opposes N.H. Public Space Insurance Requirement

July 27, 2007

The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union says requiring $1 million in insurance to hold events on public property in Jaffrey violates constitutional free speech rights.

The civil liberties union has taken issue with the town’s new insurance requirement. The group is contemplating suing if the town applies the rule to the annual Live Free or Die Celebration next month.

“We’re waiting to hear from the town’s attorneys about whether or not they will be revising the policy and whether or not they will be attempting to apply the policy in respect to (event organizer Jean Mike) Coutu and his event,” said Barbara Keshen, civil liberties union staff attorney.

She said the insurance requirement would violate Coutu’s First Amendment right and his right to hold a public event in a public forum.

Town counsel and Jaffrey’s insurance company, Primex Insurance Brokers Inc., are reviewing the complaint, said Randall Heglin, the town’s acting manager.

Coutu, a Jaffrey resident, said he applied in May to use the town common for his event, but did not receive a copy of the new insurance policy until last month.

The Live Free or Die Celebration is an opportunity for residents to discuss their political views publicly, Coutu said. This year’s event will focus on preserving the land around Mount Monadnock, preserving the state motto and ending the prohibition against medical marijuana, he said.

Coutu believes the town policy was in response to his application.

But Heglin said the town began considering requiring insurance during the winter when department heads voiced concerns the rising costs of events. Heglin said the town and insurer developed a policy to protect public properties.

The guidelines require the event sponsor to buy at least $1 million in commercial general liability insurance. The sponsor would have to pay for police coverage if the police chief deems it necessary. A town employee would be present at events. And a fee schedule would be created that selectmen could waive at their discretion.

Keshen sent Heglin a letter this month saying that the guidelines go too far.

She said the policy provides no objective standards for selectmen to use in approving applications. She said that gives them “unbridled discretion” on who uses public space.

The policy also fails to provide narrowly drawn, reasonable standards in determining fees and delegates too much authority to the police chief, she said.

She said requiring a $1 million insurance policy “chills free speech and constitutes an unlawful restraint on First Amendment speech.”

“I haven’t seen a policy like this replicated in any other jurisdiction,” Keshen said. “This is a pretty far-out policy.”


Information from: The Keene Sentinel,

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