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Torbick testimony fallout: Schools may have broken law, ACLU says

By Union Leader Staff
August 13. 2018 11:16AM


CONCORD — The state’s most prominent civil liberties group warned Friday that officials at a public school and university may have violated the law after faculty members lost their jobs following their support for Kristie Torbick, the Exeter High School guidance counselor convicted of sexually assaulting a student.

Top officials with the American Civil Liberties Union-New Hampshire said state law specifically recognizes the rights of a public employee to discuss and give opinions on their own time.

“These protections exist out of a fear that public employers may do exactly what was done here — namely, terminate employees for unpopular speech done in an individual capacity concerning the government, unrelated to the employee’s work,” said ACLU Legal Director Gilles Bissonnette in an email distributed on Friday.

However, the organization remained silent on a similar issue. Top state officials, including Gov. Chris Sununu and Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, have called for disciplinary action of Education Department spokesman Tony Schinella. Schinella had posted comments deemed racist on his social media site.

The fallout has been swift since nearly two dozen people spoke on behalf of Torbick last month before she was sentenced to a minimum of 2-1/2 years in prison for sexual assault. Many of those speaking and writing on her behalf were colleagues from work or school. Some of the testimony was done in an official capacity.

Last week, Newfound Regional School District announced that guidance counselor Shelly Philbrick has resigned. Plymouth State University announced that it will no longer hire Dr. Nancy Strapko.

Bedford School Superintendent Chip McGee resigned, and some Bedford residents have called for three other Bedford High School faculty to be fired.

Bissonnette and Executive Director Devon Chaffee stressed that the statements of support were given during a court hearing.

“Our justice system depends on such individuals feeling free to testify in court, including on behalf of individuals who have been accused or convicted of crimes. The chilling effect potentially created by these institutions’ decisions is deeply damaging to the fair administration of justice,” Bissonnette wrote.

In an email, he said he could not discuss any private discussions he may have had with any of the employees, but he suggested they find a lawyer.

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