Jul. 10—A crowd of several dozen people gathered in Keene's Central Square on Saturday afternoon to protest the Free State Project, a political movement focused on bringing Libertarians to New Hampshire.
Protesters hoisted signs with sayings like "Democrats working for the common good" and "Stop school vouchers," as a few Libertarians countered, waving their own signs and sometimes jeering at the event's speakers.
"The complete erosion or dissolution of public services — that's their agenda," said Mohammad Saleh, the chair of the Cheshire County Democrats, which organized the protest. "Their ultimate goal is to get rid of public school, and we can't live in a society without public school."
Founded in 2001 by Jason Sorens, the Free State Project has aimed to recruit 20,000 people to move to New Hampshire in an effort to make the state a Libertarian bastion, though only about 6,000 have so far moved to the state, according to the movement's website.
Saleh described the Free State Project as predatory. It has co-opted the state's Republican Party, with candidates often being less than transparent with voters about what they stand for, and has pushed to cripple institutions like public schools, he said.
Democratic Rep. Lucy Weber, who represents Cheshire House District 1, said that while the Free State Project exalts freedom and liberty, their so-called liberty does not extend to others in society, including those in the LGBTQ+ community. She also said Free State politicians have pushed to make it harder to register to vote and want to restrict access to abortions in the state.
"They go, 'we're for liberty, we're for freedom.' Who isn't?" Weber said. "Their freedom is only for people who are just like them and they don't seem to have a concept of the public good."
A request for comment sent to the Free Staters website was not responded to prior to publication.
Nik Steckley of Westmoreland was among the Free Staters who turned out to counterprotest. He said that the fact that Democrats were protesting the Free State Project is a sign of its success.
"Personally I would love to see the secession movement happen," Steckley said in reference to political efforts to leave the United States. "I don't like most of the stuff the federal government does. Government and institutions feel more like a threat to me."
Steckley said he moved from Washington to New Hampshire last year to live free and support the Free State cause.
"Liberty means not having money stolen from me for things I don't support," Steckley said. "It means being able to defend myself and make choices about my body."
Croydon residents Ed Spiker and Hope Damon recounted in speeches how at town meeting earlier this year a group of Free Staters voted to slash the school's budget from $1.7 million to $800,000.
Spiker said he and many other residents of the town were outraged by the move and how it would impact their children's education. He said that almost as soon as the town meeting vote passed, residents began to research how to reverse it.
"Who would propose such a thing? What does this mean for our town? Why would anyone do this to our children? Is this even legal? And perhaps the heaviest question of them all: What do we do now?" Spiker said.
Under state law, residents were able to petition the school board to set a special election to reconsider the budget cut, he said, noting that to count that election would require 50 percent of registered voters to cast a ballot.
On election day, 379 ballots were cast, Spiker said: 377 for reinstating the $1.7 million budget and two against.
Describing the Free Staters as "an invasive species," Damon said that New Hampshire residents living in small towns have to be vigilant and show up to vote at town meetings and elections to avoid similar disasters.
"The community is better from what happened, but we are also very vulnerable," Damon said. "This could happen anywhere."
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