Silenced no more: Alton pays resident Jeffrey Clay to settle civil rights suit

  • Clay

Monitor staff
Published: 5/6/2016 12:07:28 AM

Keeping Jeffrey Clay quiet at an Alton select board meeting wound up costing more than $40,000.

The town settled a federal civil rights lawsuit this week with Clay, who sued for damages after he was arrested during the public comment period of a select board meeting in February 2015.

A judge dismissed the disorderly conduct charges against Clay last June, calling his arrest by police Chief Ryan Health “pure censorship.”

Clay accused the town of maliciously prosecuting him for criticizing town officials.

“Under the First Amendment, public officials are required to tolerate harsh criticisms,” said Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire and one of Clay’s lawyers.

Clay has stayed away from select board meetings since his arrest.

“I didn’t want to get arrested again for speaking my mind,” he said. “I’ve missed being there. I’ve missed participating.”

Clay said he’ll be at the next meeting and plans to speak up, loud and clear.

“I’m going to ask them to eliminate the things that I believe are meant to limit public participation and infringe on people’s First Amendment rights,” he said.

The board’s policy does not allow speakers to complain about town employees or officials, and specifically bans disruptive, disorderly or argumentative statements.

The $42,500 settlement paid to Clay and his attorneys came from the town’s insurer, Primex. Under the state’s right-to-know law, the settlement is required to be held on file at the town clerk’s office.

Town Administrator Elizabeth Dionne, who signed the settlement on Monday, said the town hasn’t received a copy of the agreement and didn’t have it on file. The ACLU posted a copy on its website.

It would have been cheaper – both financially and politically – for the town to simply let Clay speak, said attorney Jared Bedrick, who also represented Clay.

“If they had only been even-tempered and accept or even entertain different viewpoints, they’d be in a different place than they are now,” Bedrick said.

Clay, who considers himself a government watchdog, went to the select board meeting on Feb. 3, 2015, like he had before and told board members they had violated the right-to-know law and should resign.

“Every time I show up here, it is with my fervent hope that I find you folks have resigned,” Clay said at the outset. “But you continue to show an unwillingness to take responsibility for your actions as selectmen and resign.”

The board members didn’t like what they heard. One called it “character assassination.” The board chairman at the time, R. Loring Carr, called Clay’s comments libelous and defamatory. They quickly voted to close down the public comment portion and told Clay to stop talking.

Clay continued. Heath, in uniform, approached Clay and told him to stand up and leave. When Clay didn’t, he was arrested.

The arrest served only to silence Clay, Judge James Carroll wrote.

Clay’s arrest was “content-based censorship as the defendant was acting within the very rules promulgated by the board as well within his Constitutional rights under the U.S. and N.H. Constitutions,” Carroll wrote.

Clay said he hopes his case sends a message.

“I’m hoping other towns are paying attention and see the award and treat their citizens better,” Clay said. “They deserve respect.”

The town admitted no wrongdoing by settling the case.

Heath, the police chief, was also named in the suit and did not return a phone call for comment.

(Jonathan Van Fleet can be reached at 369-3303 or jvanfleet@cmonitor.com.)




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