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Judge rules Alton meeting arrest violated free speech

Union Leader Correspondent

June 09. 2015 8:16PM
This image taken from video shows Jeffrey T. Clay being arrested at the Feb. 3 Alton selectman's meeting. (YouTube)

ALTON — In what the state’s American Civil Liberties Union legal director called “a powerful statement on the importance of the First Amendment,” a Laconia circuit court judge dismissed a criminal charge for disorderly conduct against a man arrested during a selectmen’s meeting in February.

Jeffrey T. Clay, 56, of 53 Mallard Drive, was arrested approximately 40 seconds into the allotted five-minute comment period Feb. 3 after asking all board members to resign. He pointed to their “poor actions as selectmen,” “poor decisions” and “continued violations of the citizens’ rights here in Alton.”

Selectman David Hussey interrupted Clay and called his remarks “character assassination” and requested a “point of order.” Hussey left the room for fewer than five seconds, and Police Chief Ryan Heath appeared and arrested Clay after apparently trying to calm him down.

Click below to view a video of the incident:

With a legal team of Jared Bedrick of Bedrick Law Offices, Mark Sisti of Sisti Law Offices, and Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the ACLU, Clay fought the arrest charge. On Tuesday, Judge James Carroll issued a ruling dismissing the charges.

“The arrest of (Clay) is found by the court to be a violation of (Clay’s) First Amendment right of free speech,” Carroll wrote.

The arrest amounted to “content-based censorship as the defendant was acting within the very rules promulgated by the (selectmen) as well within his constitutional rights under the U.S. and N.H. Constitutions,” Carroll wrote. Clay “complied with the board’s own protocol, established by the board for public input.”

Anthony Estee, the town’s attorney, said he had not had time to read the judge’s order and had no comment Tuesday afternoon.

Clay could not be reached for comment.

Bissonnette said Clay was arrested “simply for engaging in political, non-disruptive speech on matters of public concern.”

“(Carroll’s) opinion is a powerful statement on the importance of the First Amendment,” he said.

Bedrick said the judge’s decision was important because cases like Clay’s are not uncommon.

“Sadly, these types of free speech violations still occur in 2015,” Bedrick said. “In a free society, governmental officials are required to tolerate harsh criticism and even a demeaning attitude toward them — including viewpoints that can feel like ‘character assassination’ — and cannot discriminate based on these critical viewpoints.”

“Speech directed to and about the government is singled out for protection because speech — including opinions about how well or badly officials carry out their duties — lies at the very heart of the First Amendment.”

Bedrick said if left unchallenged, the case would have set a bad precedent.

“Just as concerning, the town’s actions in this case of not only suppressing Mr. Clay’s speech, but also prosecuting him in the face of clearly established law will chill others from engaging in future speech that is critical of the board,” he said.

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