KEENE, N.H. — The self-styled "Robin Hooders" race to the rescue of the parking peasantry, pumping quarters into their expired meters and leaving behind cards informing them they have been saved from "the king's tariff."
Nobody, not even the king — in this case the quaint New Hampshire college town of Keene — disputes their right to use pocket change as political capital in what they view as a fight against government oppression.
But city officials say the not-so-merry band leaves behind more than cards with a cartoon Robin Hood and a suggestion to pay their good deed forward: stressed-out parking enforcement officers. And now the New Hampshire Supreme Court is deliberating if there is a line to be drawn between protecting free speech rights and protecting government employees from harassment.
The six Robin Hooders won round one last December when a superior court judge dismissed the city's request for an order restricting how close the protesters can come to the officers, some of whom claim they have been bumped and assailed with profanities. That court ruled the Robin Hooders' actions amount to protected political expression that can't be restricted.
The city is supported in its legal battle by the New Hampshire Municipal Association, whose lawyers claim the lower court did not weigh the government's interest in protecting employees from harm and impediments to doing their jobs. The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union falls squarely on the side of the Robin Hooders.
One of the city's three parking enforcement officers — Alan Givetz, a veteran of Iraq — quit the job in July 2013 after repeatedly being harassed and called a "coward" and a baby-killer by the Robin Hooders, court documents say. The city claims another, Jane McDermott, was followed to a restroom and called a "liar" and a "thief."
The Robin Hooders apparently were not on patrol Thursday, according to two meter readers who say they hadn't seen them. One, Linda Desruisseaux, urged several college students piling into the car to put a nickel in the meter in their expired meter so she wouldn't have to write them a ticket.
"We do it all the time, quite frankly," she said.
But the Robin Hooders — affiliates of the rabble-rousing Free Keene group that protests government intervention on issues ranging from guns to marijuana — say they're the ones with the motorists' well-being at heart as they feed meters, sometimes walking just ahead of the parking enforcement officers who would write a ticket.
An online recruitment effort last year to enlist additional Robin Hooders added, "As a bonus, you get to have fun as you deny the local government gang the hard-earned dollars of the good people of Keene."
Lawyers for Keene argue that a buffer zone of 15-feet around their parking enforcement officers would not infringe on the free speech rights of the Robin Hooders. The justices have not indicated when they will rule.
Attorney Charles Bauer, representing Keene, said even five feet back would be beneficial.
"The proximity is the key to this case," he argued to the justices last month. He said Friday that duration is also an issue.
"These people are haranguing them constantly," Bauer said.
Though its employees have reported harassment and physical contact with the Robin Hooders, Bauer said the city has no interest in arresting the protesters. "We say, 'Continue your protest, but do it 5-10 feet back, please.'"
Attorney Jon Meyer, representing the Robin Hooders, said Friday the city is highlighting several contentious incidents among thousands of interactions between the protesters and enforcement officers over the past several years. He said testimony at a hearing last year indicated the demonstrators were respectful and "almost always stepped back" when asked.
But even then, the peace of mind of the enforcement officers is irrelevant, Meyer told the Supreme Court.
"One of the prices of public service is you have to put up with a certain amount of grief," he argued.