Updated: 5:20 p.m. March 16, 2017
After an encounter with Town of Taos law enforcement on Thursday (March 16) afternoon that lasted about 20 minutes, Jeff Northrup, the sign maker, was taken to Holy Cross Hospital for a mental health evaluation.
The incident occurred a couple of days after Northrup had voluntarily removed his neon signs after he was ordered to do so by town officials. He began putting signs back up on Thursday.
Northrup was served with a notice by Town of Taos police March 16 at about 1:30 p.m., according to Lt. David Maggio.
“I don’t believe they have a right to take my signs. This is an issue of free speech,” Northrup told The Taos News as he was sitting next to one of his signs near a bus stop on Paseo del Pueblo Sur near Indian Hills.
When Northrup did not remove the signs within the two hours allowed in the notice, a police service aide with the department began removing the fluorescent poster boards from the east side of Paseo and putting them in the bed of a police truck.
Northrup attempted to take the sign back out of the bed of a police truck when Maggio intervened.
Northrup then laid down on the side of the road. After several minutes of “pleading,” as Maggio described it, Northrup said, “I want my signs or I want to be arrested.”
Northrup got up and laid down again, this time in the street between two cars stopped at a red light. Maggio and the aide carried Northrup by the hands and feet to the side of the road until another police escort arrived to take him to Holy Cross Hospital for a mental evaluation.
“I tried to be more than reasonable,” Maggio told The Taos News afterwords. “I don’t think a normal person would lay down in traffic,” he said, noting that he has known Northrup for over 15 years and “couldn’t watch him get run over.”
“I’d rather see you safe [than arrested],” Maggio said.
“Like any other citizen, if you don’t agree with the laws you can go to court,” Maggio said.
Maggio said free speech was not the issue because people are allowed to stand with one sign and picket, but that Northrup’s signs — about eight — are considered “refuse and trash” and in violation of the town code.
For some, the neon-painted, balloon-bearing signs that periodically line the roadway between Quesnel Street and the Taos County courthouse stand as emblems of peaceful protest based in First Amendment rights. Others have seen them as biased, obtrusive distractions that divide the community.
Now the signs – the handiwork of Jeff Northrup, Taos’ longtime roadside rabble-rouser – may be going away for good.
At least, that’s what the town of Taos government seems to believe.
After fielding a litany of complaints from private citizens and local businesses, town officials have determined that Northrup’s freestanding picket signs violate several sections of town code.
Those who traveled the busy thoroughfare between Smith’s and Indian Hills Inn the afternoon of March 13 might have borne witness as Lt. David Maggio of the Taos Police Department served Northrup, 70, with a notice that the signs would have to be taken down.
Northrup, who spoke with The Taos News the morning of March 14, confirmed that he was served with a notice that included what he described as an inaccurate copy of the relevant sections of town code.
He was provided with two hours to remove the signs and complied without incident – though it seems unlikely that Northrup, a protester since college and an outspoken Taos resident of 27 years, will go down without a fight.
Dueling code interpretations
Louis Fineberg, director of the town’s planning and zoning department, said this week that code enforcement issues of this sort are not based in any bias on the part of the town itself, but are rather based on complaints it receives. “If we get complaints,” he said, “we go and search the code to see if there are any violations.”
Fineberg pointed to several that he – with oversight from Town Manager Rick Bellis and Steve Ross, a town attorney – found within the town code.
Much of the language in the code outlines commercial sign regulations – how many a business can post, what type can be used and where they can be placed in relation to county and state rights of way.
In summary, the town bases its policies on right of way rules and regulations outlined by the New Mexico State Highway Department, when it comes to the use of rights of way owned by the state of New Mexico. Specifically, Fineberg explained the rules prohibit “the display of signs on any state highway right of way,” including State Road 68 (Paseo del Pueblo Norte/Sur).
Fineberg also noted that protest signs must be “in control” of the protester, which Fineberg said is another violation given that Northrup’s signs are propped up along the roadway, rather than held by him.
According to the town, code also prohibits signs that “restrict the free ingress or egress of any sidewalk,” a rule that several town residents have said Northrup’s signs violate.
Town officials also said that the signs pose a hazard for drivers, as they are “distracting.”
In a town council meeting held March 14, Northrup contended that the town’s interpretation of the code was “loose” at best and open to other interpretations.
He said that the controversies surrounding his signs are nothing new, that the town has waffled on its readings of code since he first started picketing in 2008.
“Seven years ago,” he said, “we came to a written agreement with the town attorney about what I could do, how I could do it and where I could do it.”
But following a contentious election season, Northrup’s signs have caused another flare-up in the town that has reignited the issue.
“Since the election, I have had one or two signs stolen,” he said. “They almost always have to do with Donald Trump.”
A few months ago, Northrup was called into a meeting with Bellis, Maggio and George “Fritz” Hahn, a town councilor, in which he was notified that the town would be revisiting the issue given the high number of complaints this year.
Northrup said that he expressed a willingness to work with the town in any way he could, but following the incident Monday, he has asked for new guidelines regarding what he can and cannot do.
“I told them that I wanted to continue picketing and asked how may signs I could have,” Northrup said. “They said I could have one.”
Nevertheless, Northrup said the morning of March 14 that locals could expect to see his familiar display later in the day.
“I’m going to go out today with 12 signs,” he said. “I told them I’m prepared for whatever they might do, and I will do what I feel is appropriate in response if there is a problem. It might be too early in the fight. I don’t think they want a confrontation with me right now, and I certainly don’t want one with them.”
Additional reporting by Cody Hooks, The Taos News.