Back in February, a judge cleared Nantucket government officials of alleged civil rights violations stemming from the bitter fallout over the hate crime at the African Meeting House in March 2018. But the case is once again back in court.
Last week the plaintiffs - island residents James Barros and Rose Marie Samuels - filed a motion for reconsideration in Nantucket Superior Court relating to the March 11, 2020 Select Board meeting in which they allege that their civil rights were violated by police chief Bill Pittman and town manager Libby Gibson during a discussion about the African Meeting House hate crime. After a hearing last Friday, the matter was taken under advisement by Superior Court Judge Mark Gildea.
A tense exchange with those town officials at the meeting more than three years ago prompted Barros and Samuels to file the lawsuit alleging their right to free speech had been abridged as they attempted to express their frustration with the lack of progress in the investigation into the racist graffiti that was spray painted on the historic African Meeting House. They claimed they were unable to exercise their free speech rights due to “threats, intimidation, and coercion” at the meeting.
The court, however, entered its final judgement in this case on February 15, 2023, finding that Gibson and Pittman did not commit a Massachusetts Civil Rights Act violation during the meeting. But Barros and Samuels claim there is new evidence stemming from the deposition testimonies of Gibson and Pittman.
“During her deposition, defendant Gibson admitted that she interrupted Samuels while she was speaking and told her to stop speaking,” the suit says. “Defendant Gibson also admits that the video of the meeting showing her interrupting and yelling at Samuels to stop speaking is accurate depiction of what happened during the meeting.”
The plaintiffs went on to say that in Pittman’s testimony, he “does not dispute that he was dressed in Nantucket Police gear and may have been armed, when he stood up, pointed at Barros and singled him out of the audience and accused him of spreading rumors.”
But in the town's opposition filed with the court, they argue that all of that information from the deposition testimonies does nothing other than affirm what were already the undisputed facts that were taken into consideration when the court entered its final judgement decision.
“Plaintiffs have not shown any newly discovered evidence, a change in circumstances, a change in law affecting the Court’s decision or a plain error of fact or law in the Court’s decision to warrant the reconsideration of the Court’s decision,” the defendants argued.
Through their attorney John Hitt, Barros and Samuels also argue that a recent decision in Barron v. Kolenda on March 7, 2023 should give the court some direction in where to take the case next and to reconsider the final judgement.
The Supreme Judicial Court overturned a Superior Court’s decision in Barron v. Kolenda and directed the court to enter a judgment declaring the public comment policy of the town of Southborough, MA “unconstitutional” and that the town's public comment policy violated rights protected by articles 16 (Freedom of the Press/Speech) and 19 (Right to assemble and petition legislature) of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.
The town, however, argued that the Barron case should have no effect on the court’s decision because the facts and procedure of this case are “easily distinguishable” from the Barron’s case.
“First, the court in Barron was reviewing the Superior Court’s grant of a motion for judgment on the pleadings,” the defendants argue. “This decision here was on a motion for summary judgement. Second, the Court here did not opine on the Town’s public comment policy in place at the time of the March 11, 2020 meeting.”
The defendants went on further in an attempt to separate the two cases by arguing that the Select Board, Gibson, and Pittman did not interrupt Samuels or Barros’ ability to speak.
“As opposed to the Barron case, where the Chair threatened to physically remove plaintiff from the meeting and then stopped the meeting altogether, here, the Court properly found that the brief interruptions of plaintiffs did not curtail plaintiffs’ speech and, in fact, plaintiff Samuels was afforded over 10 minutes of public speaking time,” the defendants said in their response. “While defendant Gibson did not interrupt plaintiff Samuels, it is defendant Gibson – who is not a member of the Select Board – who left the meeting while plaintiff Samuels continued to speak.”
During the hearing Friday afternoon, Hitt argued that since the public comment policy did not have a time limit at the time of the meeting, there was no reason for Samuels to be interrupted while she was speaking.
“This wasn’t a debate, it was public comment,” Hitt said. He added that town officials, unless the situation poses an imminent threat, should not be interrupting anyone who speaks during public comment.
Superior Court Judge Mark Gildea questioned Hitt’s stance, asking if he was insinuating that public officials should not be allowed to speak.
“It makes no sense to say a public official has no right to speak during a public meeting,” Gildea said.
The town's counsel in the case, Deborah Ecker, reiterated that Samuels’ ability to speak was not taken away – pointing to the fact she spoke for 10 minutes. She also said that there is nothing that states town officials cannot engage in a back and forth with individuals during public comment.