Frustrations Grow Over Vulgar Signs

Editor's Note: Photo was digitally altered. After being asked by frustrated residents about what the town of Bethlehem can do about vulgar signs now up for nearly two months at the Pinewood Motel, selectmen on Monday said there's little that can be done unless the town wants to end up in a First Amendment lawsuit it would lose, along with money in legal fees. (File photo by Robert Blechl)

BETHLEHEM — Frustrations continue to grow over vulgar signs placed nearly two months ago by a tenant of the Pine Wood Motel along a high-visibility area of Route 302.

During their meeting on Monday, selectmen were asked by several residents why nothing to date has been done.

One resident said children will soon be returning to school and will see them.

A sign reading “F*** you” is posted to a tree and is visible on westbound Route 302 as one leaves Bethlehem for Littleton.

Another sign reads “F*** Biden.”

Selectmen said they have since inquired about solutions, but were told by town legal counsel that any action taken by the town would likely put it in a First Amendment lawsuit that would end in defeat and cost money.

They also cited a town in New Jersey that took action against the same exact sign, but recently lost in that state’s Supreme Court.

During their July 26 meeting, selectmen said they will reach out to the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, to determine if the signs are too close to the road and could legally be removed, and to the office of the New Hampshire Attorney General.

Seeking an update on Monday was Cherry Valley Road resident Donna Wiley, who asked about the status with both state departments.

“There’s been nothing that’s come up that we can do as a town,” said Board of Selectmen Chairman Gabe Boisseau.

There has been discussion with the attorney general’s office, but at this point the town has not heard that office’s legal opinion or about any action taken, he said.

“I don’t know what to say,” said Wiley. “It’s very upsetting. This is someone’s private property. It’s not this person’s private property. He’s a tenant.”

The property is owned by Randall Nearing, who last month told The Caledonian-Record he is frustrated by the signs and said the tenant, Ryan Collins, a convicted felon, is violating his lease agreement by posting the signs, and that, he Nearing, had grabbed the signs when they were first put up and threw them in the trash, but a Bethlehem police officer told him to give them back to Collins.

“It’s the landlord’s property,” said Wiley, who is a former landlord. “That’s confusing to me.”

Selectman Chris Jensen spoke with Nearing the day after it happened and said the way it was described to him is the signs are the tenant’s personal property and Nearing couldn’t throw them away and had to return them to the tenant, who then put the signs back up.

“There’s a case similar to this in New Jersey a while ago with exactly the same sign,” he said.

The town there, Roselle Park, had an obscenity charge filed against a New Jersey homeowner, who had posted and refused to remove flags saying “F*** Biden and f*** you for voting for him,” arguing that she violated the community’s obscenity ordinance.

(Collins had flown an identical flag — they’re commercially produced and widely available online — before someone had set it aflame in the middle of the night in early July).

In late July, the New Jersey Supreme Court dismissed the charges against the Roselle Park resident, which that town’s officials had eventually requested.

In a statement, Roselle Park officials said, “The continued attention garnered by the inappropriate display and the escalating costs to taxpayers of continuing to litigate the matter causes far greater harm to the Borough, as a whole, than good.”

Wiley said she’s familiar with the New Jersey case, but said the Bethlehem issue involves a tenant who’s renting a room and not a property owner posting the signs.

“Right, but that’s between the owner of the motel and his tenant,” Jensen said.

“I know landlords have rights,” said Wiley. “But as a town and a community, I wish there was something that we could do to help the situation.”

Selectman Veronica Morris cited a 1971 California Supreme Court ruling that upheld a man’s right to wear a jacket that read “F*** the draft” inside a public building, with the court concluding that the First Amendment protects political speech.

Courts, rather, look at obscenity as pornography, she said.

“Unfortunately, we are really constrained as a people as to what we can do, and the landlord has to address this with his tenant,” said Morris.

“That will take months,” said Wiley.

The owner of an abutting property has agreed to let a fence be installed to hide the signs from those leaving town, said Selectman April Hibberd.

Wiley suggested that selectmen again reach out to the NHDOT and attorney general’s office.

“We could do something, but the chances that the town is going to get dragged into litigation are really, really good, just like the New Jersey case, and in the end it’s not going to work out for us,” said Jensen.

Another resident expressing frustration was Margaret Gale, who said, “I’m trying to figure out how it’s working out for us now. Is it working out for us now to do nothing?”

Selectmen said it’s not working out, but it’s also not costing the town thousands of dollars.

And town legal counsel, early on, advised selectmen against taking any action in order to avoid a lawsuit from violating someone’s constitutional rights, based on precedent from previous supreme court rulings regarding protected speech, they said.

“We choose not to do it,” said Gale. “I think it’s important to say it’s not that we can’t do it, but we choose not to do it.”

Resident Nancy Fages asked if there are any laws in regard to obscenity.

“This an absolute obscenity,” she said. “If he was standing naked in the street, we would have recourse to that. “

Boisseau said selectmen did inquire with town legal counsel about the issue of obscenity and the wording on the signs, and were told the wording would have to pose a specific threat to a person or promote “fisticuffs” or a physical altercation with someone, and the current signs do not do that.

“Just to reiterate, we do have a sign ordinance in town, but we will have to re-look at that sign ordinance because we have very little regulation over what goes on that sign,” he said. “We can regulate the placement of it, we can regulate the size of it, but we cannot regulate the wording of it.”

Fages said, “I think this is absolutely disgusting that children have to look at this every day on their way to school. It’s an absolute disgrace. And I’m a Republican and I say it’s a disgrace.”

In early July, Nearing told The Caledonian-Record he was planning to begin an eviction process against Collins based on the violation of the rental agreement, a process that will take at least six weeks once begun and cost thousands of dollars.

Nearing could not be reached for comment on Tuesday for an update and how he is proceeding with the tenant.

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