Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of ACLU-NH, honored as First Amendment Award recipient  

  • Gilles Bissonnette (center), legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, speaks outside the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire after oral arguments in a lawsuit against the “banned concepts” law on Sept. 14. (Ethan DeWitt | New Hampshire Bulletin)

  • Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the ACLU of New Hampshire, is this year's Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications' First Amendment Award recipient. —Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 10/3/2022 7:52:36 PM

A year before the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Gilles Bissonnette and his team at the ACLU of New Hampshire had already been working in the court room to increase police accountability and transparency across New Hampshire.

Four days after Floyd’s death, their success was realized when the New Hampshire Supreme Court overturned a case from 1993 that allowed government agencies to automatically withhold broad swaths of information on the basis it related to “internal personnel practices.”

Now, the public has access to records that were once held secret.

“It was what I like to describe as the Dark Ages of New Hampshire, where there was just no ability to learn what was going on with respect to police departments, internally, or any other government agency for that matter,” said Bissonnette, the legal director of the ACLU of New Hampshire.

The case was one example of the work Bissonnette has accomplished to protect and promote the public’s Constitutional right to access its government. This year, Bissonnette has been named the recipient of the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications’ First Amendment Award.

Bissonnette will be recognized at the schools annual event on Oct. 20. New Hampshire Public Radio will also be awarded the school’s Quill and Ink Award, in recognition of their commitment to continue reporting on sensitive stories despite threats of violence against their staff and vandalization of their homes.

Since the 2020, Bissonnette has seen an increase in government transparency in New Hampshire – a key tenant of the ACLU’s work to defend and protect civil liberties, like free speech.

“One of the core values of our organization at the ACLU is to not only make sure that people have the right to speak freely about government, about politics, about issues of the day, but also they have the right to learn about what their state, federal and local government are doing,” he said.

Free speech is critical. But it also goes hand in hand with the right to informed speech. This is where public records are essential to educating the public on government activity, he said.

“That is part of living in a democracy is the ability to not only speak out against the government, but know what the government is doing,” he said.

This focus on the public’s right to know about government is what made Bissonnette stand out, according to Gregory Sullivan, one of the award judges and attorney at Malloy and Sullivan law firm.

Sullivan, who has litigated cases alongside the ACLU representing the New Hampshire Union Leader, recognized Bissonnette’s commitment to police transparency.

“His cases that he’s argued in both the Superior Court and particularly the Supreme Court, have changed the landscape tremendously for the better in terms of transparency and the public’s ability to access not only the conduct of the officers involved but also the supervisors involved in each case,” he said.

In repealing the 1993 decision that shielded records, the court initiated the need to apply a “balancing test” for public records requests, that weighs the benefits of disclosure versus the benefits nondisclosure, like concerns of privacy.

In the aftermath of this decision, Bissonnette and his team are focused on finding cases where arguments favored disclosure, and if the governing body decided not to release information, he filed a lawsuit.

“We go to court to make sure that the balancing test we now have in New Hampshire actually means something,” he said.

An example of this was a recent ruling in April – Provenza v. Town of Canaan – where the New Hampshire Supreme Court agreed with the ACLU’s evaluation of the balancing test and required the Canaan Police Department to release an internal report about an officer’s use of excessive force at a motor vehicle stop.

Bissonnette is coming up on his 10th anniversary at the ACLU of New Hampshire. Confidently, he said it’s the best job he’ll ever have.

“Frankly, I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he said. “Every day I get to wake up and read the Concord Monitor, read the Union Leader and if I read about something that is a concern and impacts people’s fundamental rights, I have this unique ability and platform with our team to do something about it.”

He also credits the people he works with – from fellow ACLU employees to other law firms he’s partnered with and community organizations – for the work he’s accomplished.

“This has always been a team effort. This has always been a collaboration and a coalition project,” he said. “We are getting access to information now that we would have never gotten access to for the prior 27 years. And we are better as a state for that transparency.”


MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Michaela Towfighi is a Report for America corps member covering the Two New Hampshires for the Monitor. She graduated from Duke University with a degree in public policy and journalism and media studies in 2022. At Duke she covered education, COVID-19, the 2020 election and helped edit stories about the Durham County Courthouse for The 9th Street Journal and the triangle area's alt-weekly Indy Week. Her story about a family grappling with a delayed trial for a fatal car accident in Concord won first place in Duke’s Melcher Family Award for Excellence in Journalism. Towfighi is an American expat who calls London, England, home despite being born in Boston.



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