Honoring those who stand up for the First Amendment in New Hampshire

Last modified: 11/13/2015 1:36:24 AM
When two men were arrested for speaking up at public meetings in Alton and Gilford, their cases wound up before Laconia District Judge James Carroll.

In each case, after hearing the arguments for disorderly conduct charges, Carroll dismissed all the charges.

Carroll said he was doing what any district court judge would have done.

When Portsmouth police Officer John Connors thought a fellow officer was trying to fleece an elderly woman out of her inheritance, he spoke up. Even though Portsmouth police never took the allegation very seriously, a judge later found that Officer Aaron Goodwin unduly influenced 93-year-old Geraldine Webber to change her will to benefit him before she died. In his ruling stripping Goodwin of the inheritance, the judge admonished police for the “apparent lack of concern within the department about the potential for exploitation of Ms. Webber by department employees.”

Connors said he was only trying to do the right thing.

Both men were honored for their actions at the Nackey Loeb First Amendment awards in Concord on Thursday night.

Carroll received the Quill & Ink Award, which is given out only when deserved, while Connors received the 13th First Amendment Award, for upholding the principles of free speech.

“The First Amendment controls how society moves ahead,” Connors said. “Nothing is as powerful as the truth.”

Back in 2010, Connors, a longtime member of the Portsmouth police force, grew concerned about a fellow officer who kept stopping by Webber’s house, one of Connors’s elderly neighbors. Day after day, he saw the same cruiser show up.

He told the deputy police chief, who laughed it off, Connors said. He told the chief, who told him to mind his own business.

Fed up by what he saw as a million-dollar heist happening across the street from his house, he spoke to the newspaper. Portsmouth Herald reporter Elizabeth Dinan dutifully told the story and editor Howard Altschiller guided it onto the paper’s front page.

After the story broke, it was like a bomb went off, he said.

He received a formal reprimand from the police department, accusing him of violating the media policy, and committed malfeasance and insubordination. He said the officer that drafted the complaint against him was Goodwin, the same man who received the majority of Webber’s estate after her death.

He put his credibility on the line, but spoke up anyway.

“For the first 3½ years, it was me against the world, but I was in it for the long haul,” Connors said. “If I didn’t speak out and exercise my First Amendment right, this whole thing would have gone away a long time ago and nothing would have been done.”

Connors resigned from his job in September after 42 years with the department so he could continue to exercise his right to free speech.

In receiving the award, Connors thanked Dinan and Altschiller, who printed hundreds of stories on the case.

“Some people say you can believe half of what you read in the newspaper,” Connors said. “Every word that was written was 100 percent accurate. She’s the one who deserves the award. It was journalism at its finest.”

Carroll didn’t attend the award program held in Concord because the state Supreme Court ethics committee said it might be viewed as a conflict, Union Leader publisher Joe McQuaid said.

McQuaid said Carroll’s rulings in the case of William Baer and Jeffrey Clay spoke volumes to New Hampshire’s elected officials and residents alike about the importance of free speech and the First Amendment.

In May 2014, Baer questioned the appropriateness of assigned reading material to students at a Gilford School Board meeting. He spoke out of turn, and kept talking when the chairman tried to recognize someone else. When police ordered Baer to leave the room and he refused, he was forced to leave and arrested.

Carroll ruled that Baer’s actions did not justify his removal from the meeting and arrest.

“The court finds that this case is, notwithstanding the cynicism of the defendant, an excellent ‘civics’ lesson, a perfect case for modeling free speech guarantees,” Carroll wrote.

In February, Clay spoke up at an Alton selectman’s meeting, telling elected officials they should stand up and resign. Selectmen cut off the public comment portion of the meeting, but Clay continued speaking. When he didn’t stop, he was arrested by police Chief Ryan Health.

In his ruling months later, Carroll said Clay’s arrest was a case of “pure censorship.”

At the end of his six-page ruling, Carroll quoted the state Constitution.

“Free speech and liberty of the press are essential to the security of freedom in a state: They ought, therefore to be inviolably preserved,” he wrote.

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