- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 15, 2015

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union is suing the town of Alton and its police chief on behalf of a man who was arrested after suggesting at a public meeting that the entire board of selectmen resign.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in federal court in Concord on behalf of Jeffrey Clay, who was arrested Feb. 3. A judge in June dismissed the disorderly conduct charge against him, saying the board’s actions amounted to pure censorship.

The lawsuit says the board’s policy gave members of the public five minutes to speak but that Clay was ordered to stop talking after 40 seconds and was arrested when he refused.

Alton’s police chief, town administrator and attorney did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Clay initially told board members he wanted them to resign because of “poor decisions” and “poor judgment.” Selectman David Hussey interrupted him to say his remarks amounted to character assassination and chairman R. Loring Carr shut down the public input session at that point. According to the lawsuit, Clay continued to speak, telling board members they were morally corrupt and challenging them to resign immediately.

Police Chief Ryan Heath arrested Clay and escorted him from the room, pinning one of Clay’s arms behind his back. The selectmen reopened the public comment session after Clay left.

The board changed its public input policy in May to prohibit speech that is argumentative and not related to items on the agenda.

“In a free society, governmental officials are required to tolerate harsh criticism and even a demeaning attitude toward them,” NHCLU lawyer Gilles Bissonnette wrote in the lawsuit. Clay is seeking unspecified damages, saying the board’s action violated his free speech rights and his right to be protected from unreasonable seizure. The suit claims he was humiliated and his reputation was damaged by the arrest.

The judge who dismissed the charge against him in June said Clay was acting within the rules the board had in place at the time. Those rules stated that the public comment period was designed to let board members hear from residents about “any concerns, desires or hopes they may have for the community.”

The lawsuit claims Clay’s arrest “not only foreclosed him from addressing the board on Feb. 3, 2015, but created an atmosphere of hostility and fear that may discourage others from exercising their right to criticize the board.”

Bissonnette said Wednesday the lawsuit seeks to ensure “there is an environment where people with political views that don’t comport with those that are governing are free to express those views.”

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