The Free State Project Grows Up

Libertarians are changing the face of New Hampshire.


In 2001 a Yale doctoral student named Jason Sorens published an essay in the small webzine The Libertarian Enterprise, lamenting the failure of libertarian efforts at the ballot box. "Nothing's working," he wrote, because libertarians are scattered. The only way to have a real impact, he argued, would be to concentrate thousands of libertarian activists in a state with a small population and an easily accessible government. Sorens settled on an ideal target of 20,000 people, an imaginary cluster of libertarians he christened the Free State Project.

Twelve years later, against all odds, Sorens' peculiar dream is coming true. At press time, nearly 14,000 liberty lovers had pledged to move to New Hampshire once the Free State Project reaches its goal of 20,000 signatories. More than 1,100 of them, known as "pre-staters," have already moved to Manchester, Concord, Nashua, and even the state's rural northern region to prepare the ground for the coming influx of libertarians. These activists are penetrating New Hampshire's political and judicial establishment, joining community organizations, befriending (and antagonizing) the locals, and generally making themselves at home in New England. 

Free Staters in the Legislature

The first Free Stater, Jackie Casey, packed her bags in 2003, just after an online vote determined that New Hampshire would beat out Wyoming and other contenders for the Free State title. Casey had been a Wyoming partisan. "I didn't vote for New Hampshire," she told the Boston TV station WCVB in 2004. But "I moved here because I made a commitment." 

One of the main reasons New Hampshire won was the state's accessible corridors of power. Town meetings are the predominant style of government in most of its municipalities, and the state legislature is the third largest in the world, with 424 seats.

Pre-staters had an easy time picking up seats right away. After the 2012 election, they held about a dozen legislative positions on both sides of the aisle. The number may actually be higher, since some elected Free Staters have been quiet about their affiliation with the movement, due to concerns about backlash at the ballot box. But since the average annual salary of a New Hampshire state legislator is just $100, the work has to be a labor of love and passion—a Free Stater specialty. 

The professional breakdown of the Free Staters in the legislature is a reflection of the diversity of the movement; there are real estate brokers, lawyers, writers, EMTs, couriers, and computer programmers. Some are New Hampshire natives, while others hail from Florida, New York, Massachusetts, and libertine Nevada. 

The libertarian influence already has paid some dividends in governance. In 2007 the New Hampshire legislature voted to block implementation of a national ID card system in the state. The battle against REAL ID was lead by Joel Winters, the first member of the Free State Project to win a statewide representative seat. Winters, a Democrat and Floridian, ran for office on a platform focused on civil liberties and privacy just two years after he moved to New Hampshire. 

Winters, who is a building contractor by trade, notes that other Free State legislative victories are less conspicuous, because they involve stopping bad laws before they start. "There's always proposals to expand licensing requirements, and we've helped stopped those," he says, ticking off thwarted gun restrictions and seat belt regulations as examples.

Another victory for the Free Staters came in 2010, when state Rep. Jenn Coffey (R) managed to pass a bill that repealed all of New Hampshire's knife laws with astounding ease. Until Coffey's legislation passed, the state's knife restrictions were stricter in some cases than its gun laws. Stilettos, switch blades, daggers, and other collectible knives were poorly defined in the relevant statutes. Coffey's legislation passed unanimously through both chambers and was quickly signed into law. It was accompanied by another law barring municipalities from passing restrictions reversing Coffey's legislation.

In 2011 state Reps. Mark Warden (R) and Calvin Pratt (R) stood up for beer freedom, sponsoring a law that gives home brewers permission to open breweries and sell their product without having to set up a working kitchen and offer a full menu to drinkers. The result: a micro-boom in nano-breweries. Warden says there are now at least eight new small, independent brewers in the Live Free or Die State. 

Many Free Staters will tell you that one of their biggest wins so far was the passage and strengthening of jury nullification laws. Nullification takes place when jurors acquit a defendant not because they think he is innocent but because they believe the law or its application in that case is unjust.

The effort to resurrect and formalize jury nullification in New Hampshire, which began in the early 2000s, has been the passion of Free Staters such as Cathleen Converse, Richard Angell, and John Connell. They have spent countless hours working with a longtime New Hampshire resident, Bob Constantine, to raise awareness about the right of jurors to judge the law as well as the facts of the case. Their efforts kicked into overdrive in 2005 when the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled in State v. Sanchez that the state laws on jury nullification were too murky.

Free Staters, along with some liberty-loving locals, run a group modeled after Montana's Fully Informed Jury Association called New Hampshire Jury Information, which educates prospective jurors and the general public about jury nullification. Its members frequently stand outside courthouses distributing flyers and pamphlets to prospective jurors. For at least a decade, this was the only legal way to let jurors know they could nullify. Then in June 2012, after seven unsuccessful attempts, activists finally pushed through a law allowing defense attorneys to "inform the jury of its right to judge the facts and the application of the law in relation to the facts." 

All this activism produced a high-profile victory in 2012, when a jury that included Converse acquitted a Rastafarian named Douglas Darrell of marijuana cultivation charges after Belknap County Judge James O'Neill read New Hampshire's rarely heard model jury instruction regarding nullification: "Even if you find that the State has proven each and every element of the offense charged beyond a reasonable doubt, you may still find the defendant not guilty if you have a conscientious feeling that a not guilty verdict would be a fair result in this case." At the time of Darrell's trial, New Hampshire law let judges decide whether the nullification instruction was appropriate on a case-by-case basis. O'Neill decided it was after Darrell's lawyer argued with the prosecution about the justice of convicting him, in light of the fact that he was growing cannabis for his own religious and medicinal use.

On the lighter side, in 2012 state Rep. Seth Cohn (R), in response to the attempted repeal of the 2009 New Hampshire law recognizing same-sex marriage, submitted legislation that would have banned marriages between two left-handed people. In previous years the jokester had submitted bills outlawing all marriages and replacing them with civil unions.

The merrymaking isn't limited to the legislature. In Keene there's a vogue for Robin Hooding, a form of activism where people monitor routes of parking enforcement officers and place coins in on-street parking meters nearing expiration. The practice is driving local officials nuts but winning praise from residents. The Free Keeners have seen a steady stream of small donations to the cause of rescuing unlucky car owners via their website.

"It's come a long way and it's gaining more traction and more steam," says Free State Foundation Board President Carla Gericke. "Part of [our] success is we chose the right state. There is that rugged individualism here. It's almost like we're awakening the natives who might have been totally disengaged and they're reawakening to these ideas of liberty."

Statist Squabbling

The Free State Project has not been all smooth sailing. During a 2012 campaign for the state legislature two Free Staters faced off, hurling the insult "statist" at one another. But internal Free State squabbles have been minor compared to the growing hostility they have drawn from local political interests. 

In December 2012, state Rep. Cynthia Chase (D) called Free Staters "the single biggest threat the state is facing today." Chase, writing on the liberal blog Blue Hampshire, called on Free State opponents to be as unwelcoming as possible, the better to discourage the coming influx of libertarians. Victoria Parmele, a member of the Strafford County Regional Planning Commission, told New Hampshire Magazine in 2013 that she found Free Staters to be very aggressive, calling the movement "libertarianism on steroids." 

Rep. Warden's Democratic opponent in 2012, Aaron Gill, alleged that Free Staters threatened New Hampshire's ideals. "Imagine what happens when 20,000 Free Staters move here, get elected and vote," he said in a letter to the Concord Monitor. In an irony that has not escaped the Free Staters, neither Chase nor Gill is a New Hampshire native: Chase moved from Rhode Island in 2006, and Gill moved from Massachusetts in 2002.

The Movement Matures

The Free State Project's momentum is palpable at Liberty Forum, an annual winter gathering in Nashua featuring speeches, seminars, and trade show booths. At the 2013 Liberty Forum in February, Gericke beams with excitement and energy from the podium. "We are going to make history!" she enthuses. "We are pioneers. We are changing the world in such a fundamental way, with a bunch of smart, a bunch of brilliant people. We can make this change!" 

A native of South Africa, Gericke, a corporate lawyer, moved to frigid New Hampshire from California in 2008 after working as in-house counsel for several Fortune 500 firms. She now splits time between Free State activism and the New Hampshire Writers Project. She traces her activist roots back to growing up in the police state of apartheid South Africa. "I guess I've always been a rebel," she says. 

When she lost her job after the tech bubble burst in the early 2000s, Gericke became increasingly fascinated with how markets work. She dove into every economics book she could find during this stressful period, and eventually concluded that she was a libertarian. 

Gericke's mission is to accelerate the final phase of recruitment. The project is on track to reach its goal of 20,000 Free Staters (or porcupines, as they are affectionately known—a creature dangerous only when attacked) by 2018, but she wants to speed it up to 2015. What they need now, she says, is money. "I think the Free State Project has matured," Gericke tells the audience, "and hopefully we'll continue to mature, and one of those things about maturing is 'Hey guys, we've got to get down to business.'?" She launches into a brief fundraising pitch, explaining why the Free State Project needs to raise the once-unthinkable sum of $270,000 to get over the 20,000 finish line. 

One key factor in accelerating progress toward the recruitment goal has been the two presidential campaigns of Ron Paul. Since New Hampshire is an early-primary state, Paul made a series of visits from 2007 to 2012, drawing libertarian loners out of the woodwork and into various Internet fora. Paul repeatedly endorsed the Free State Project, spoke at some of its events, and benefited (especially in 2012) from the porcupines' on-the-ground organizational knowledge. "We ran on his coattails. A lot of people started opening their eyes, young people in particular," says Jody Underwood, a Free State Project board member and owner of Bardo Farm.

The people who filtered in from the Paul movement were younger and more female than the people who had previously enlisted in the Free State cause, helping to expand the group's demographic base.

The Incrementalist Approach

None of this seemed remotely possible in 2001, even to Free State Project originator Jason Sorens. "Unfortunately, I am neither an 'organizer' type nor a well-known libertarian 'personality,'?" he wrote in his initial call to arms. "I'm an aspiring political scientist, a thinker; I don't know the first thing about leading, and my name doesn't have cachet." Now Sorens, who lives and teaches in Buffalo but has visited New Hampshire and the Free Staters several times, might finally make the move himself.

"When I started it," Sorens says, "I thought it could work, and I thought there was a real possibility people would move, but I had no idea what it would look like. A thousand people moving and taking over a community? That's amazing." 

Sorens thinks the project's success stems partly from its modest approach. "The whole point behind the FSP was to avoid utopianism," he says. Rather than trying to "build this new society," he says, Free Staters "opted instead for incrementalism, making small but noticeable, meaningful changes." Building an entire new world requires a massive investment before anybody sees results, big or small. The Free State Project already has won victories without spending much money or ripping up social architecture.

Will all of the 20,000 volunteers move to New Hampshire once the signature threshold is crossed? Probably not, but it may not matter. "If we had 2,000 solid, committed people that made it their business to get involved," says Cohn, "we might be at least as powerful as either party, quite possibly both." Even a fraction of the total would be OK with Sorens too. "Look at the change they've made with just 1,000," he says. "Even 5,000 would be mind-boggling. I think our goal right now is to attract as many people as possible. It doesn't matter what the precise number is. We're just trying to make New Hampshire a beacon of liberty."