Who is More of a Threat to Civilization? Meter Maids or People Filming Meter Maids? The New York Times on the Free State Project


The New York Times devoted a front-page story the other day (yes, ye olde gray lady is still published in a "paper edition" with a "front page") to poking a little gentle fun at the Free State Project (FSP).

FSP, as longtime readers of Reason know, is an attempt on the part of libertarians to improve their political punching weight and create salubrious community for themselves by gathering en masse in one state, in this case New Hampshire.

It focuses on the attempts of the part of an FSP offshoot of sorts, "Free Keene," in which a particularly lively and pugnaicous group try street theater and direct action to point out that the state does a lot of things that can really piss people off.

The Times's Dan Barry, naturally, find the citizens more of a nuisance than the state:

Keene's two parking officers, both women, are often videotaped by young adults known as"Robin Hooders." They track the whereabouts of the officers by two-way radio, feed expired meters before $5 tickets can be written, and leave a business card saying that "we saved you from the king's tariff."….

Welcome to Sherwood Forest, N.H., where these acts of charity have led to some donations and gratitude, but also to sidewalk tensions, harassment allegations and litigation….

This gross harassment even led one parking official—an Iraq veteran, no less—to quit his job. (The story doesn't stress what getting a parking ticket can end up leading to if for whatever reason you don't or can't pay it and otherwise refuse to obey the authority of the meter maid. It can be ugly.)

The article stops along the way to point out that some locals don't appreciate the public acting out of libertarian impulses (I wonder if any of the complainers ever had a meter fed for them by the Free Keeners?) and also that lots of FSPers are white men. It is very, very important that you understand that, for some reason.

Barry focuses on one Free Keener, Ian Freeman:

Mr. Freeman, born Ian Bernard….hasn't paid federal taxes for a decade….he broadcasts his nationwide "Free Talk Live" radio show several nights a week.

Mr. Freeman, 33, has been repeatedly arrested, and once served 58 days in jail for disorderly conduct after standing in front of a police car to protest a woman's arrest because she had an open can of beer. He is guided, he says, by his "voluntarist" belief that "all human interaction should be consensual," which might surprise the human parking officers who do not consent to being followed or videotaped.

This shadowing of parking enforcement officers has received the most publicity by far. Videotapes show the officers being dogged by activists who sometimes goad with pleasantries like: "How do you live with yourself?"

Keene strikes back!

After the officers complained about skyrocketing stress last year, the situation became even more surreal, with Keene hiring a private investigator to follow and videotape the activists following and videotaping the parking enforcers. The city then filed a legal complaint against several activists, including Mr. Freeman, accusing them of harassment and seeking a buffer zone between activist and parking officer….

Who is harassing whom? The people with the authority to kidnap over drinking a certain beverage in public, or (ultimately) to kill over a fine for overstaying a parking meter? (That doesn't have the death penalty, you say? See what continuing to resist the ticket and everything that follows from that might get you.)

In December, a Cheshire County Superior Court judge cited free-speech protections in dismissing the city's complaint, as well as its request to be reimbursed for costs that included therapy sessions for the officers. The activists celebrated a victory in the courts they disdain; the city appealed.

To the Times' mentality, filming or speaking to people with the legal power to fine and arrest is far more declasse and objectionable than fining and arresting over what you drink, smoke, or how long a car is parked.

My December 2004 Reason feature on the early days of the Free State Project.

I blogged in February about a California lawsuit challenging Los Angeles' parking ticket policies as being possibly a violation of the Constitution.