Concord, NH – On May 2, 2016, the ACLU of New Hampshire succeeded in defending the rights of its client, Jeffrey Clay, with the settlement of his federal civil rights lawsuit against the Town of Alton. Mr. Clay was arrested on February 3, 2015 during an Alton Board of Selectmen meeting simply for engaging in political, non-disruptive speech on matters of public concern. As part of the settlement, the Town of Alton has agreed to pay $42,500, inclusive of damages and attorneys’ fees. In the federal lawsuit, Mr. Clay was represented by Gilles Bissonnette, the Legal Director of the ACLU-NH, and cooperating attorney Jared Bedrick of Bedrick Law Offices. More on the case can be found here: http://aclu-nh.org/state-v-clay/.
“I am so happy that my case is finally over,” stated Mr. Clay. “It was embarrassing to be arrested and prosecuted for four months simply for engaging political speech. As a result of my February 2015 arrest, I have not attended local board meetings out of fear that I would be arrested and prosecuted again. I feel like I can now attend and exercise my free speech rights without harassment and prosecution.”
During the February 3 Board meeting, Mr. Clay was given the opportunity to speak on any issue for 5 minutes as part of the Board’s policy of “provid[ing] the Board with an opportunity to receive directly from citizens concerns, desires, or hopes they may have for the community.” During his remarks, Mr. Clay asked all Board members to resign for their “poor actions as selectmen,” “poor decisions,” and “continued violations of the citizens’ rights here in Alton.” His remarks referenced, in part, his belief that the Board has violated New Hampshire’s Right-to-Know law by holding “workshop” sessions at odd hours of the day and making decisions during them that were not transparent. He did not raise his voice or use any profanities. His speech was not disruptive.
Approximately 40 seconds into Mr. Clay’s speech, one Board member interrupted Mr. Clay, called the remarks “character assassination,” and requested a “point of order.” The Board Chairman recognized the request and ultimately proposed a “point of order” to “clos[e] down public input” because of the “libelous” and “defamatory statements made by Mr. Clay.” The 5-member Board then, with no dissenters, immediately approved the “point of order” closing down public input. All of this occurred within the first 2 minutes of Mr. Clay’s allotted time. Because Mr. Clay was speaking peacefully on matters of public concern within his 5 minutes of allotted time, he continued speaking. As a result, 4 minutes into his remarks, he was arrested by the Alton Chief of Police. A video of this incident can be found at http://youtu.be/RYnSJZTFghY.
On February 23, 2015, the Town of Alton filed two complaints against Mr. Clay alleging disorderly conduct. Each was charged as a class B misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine of up to $1,200. On March 10, 2015, the ACLU-NH wrote the Town of Alton on Mr. Clay’s behalf explaining that the Town, in suppressing Mr. Clay’s peaceful political speech, engaged in impermissible censorship in violation of the First Amendment. Despite the ACLU-NH’s letter, the Town of Alton continued to prosecute Mr. Clay for one count of disorderly conduct.
On June 9, 2015, the Laconia Circuit Court dismissed the criminal charge, calling Alton’s actions “pure censorship” in violation of the First Amendment. On July 14, 2015, Mr. Clay filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Town of Alton. As part of the settlement in this case, Alton denies liability.
“In a free society, governmental officials are required to tolerate harsh criticism and even a demeaning attitude towards them—including viewpoints that can feel like ‘character assassination’—and cannot discriminate based on these critical viewpoints,” stated Mr. Bissonnette. “Speech directed to and about the government is singled out for protection because speech lies at the very heart of the First Amendment,” added Mr. Bedrick.