Judge Clears Town Officials Of Civil Rights Violations In African Meeting House Hate Crime Fallout

Jason Graziadei •

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A Superior Court judge has ruled that the Nantucket Select Board, along with town manager Libby Gibson and police chief Bill Pittman, did not violate the civil rights or right to free speech of two citizens during the March 11, 2020 Select Board meeting in which the hate crime at the African Meeting House was discussed.

A tense exchange with those town officials at the meeting nearly three years ago prompted island residents Jim Barros and Rose Marie Samuels to file a lawsuit in Nantucket Superior Court in which they alleged 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 in March 2018. They claimed they were unable to exercise their free speech rights due to “threats, intimidation, and coercion” at the meeting.

But in a ruling handed down last month, Judge Mark Gildea declared that the town officials named in the lawsuit did not violate Barros’ and Samuels’ civil rights or right to free speech, and granted the defendants' motion for summary judgement in the case.

“No reasonable jury could find that the defendants curtailed or attempted to curtail Samuels’s speech based on viewpoint in violation of art. 16,” Gildea wrote, referring to Article 16 in the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, relating to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. “No reasonable factfinder could conclude that the brief interruptions of Samuels, coupled with the failure to interrupt Pittman, represents an attempt by Town officials to give one side an advantage in expressing views about the investigation...Objectively viewed, Pittman’s actions were not an attempt to curtail Barros’s speech about the African Meeting House investigation based on Barros’s viewpoint.”

Read the full decision by clicking here

Barros and Samuels, through their attorney John Hitt, immediately filed an appeal of Judge Gildea’s ruling. The appeal was filed with the Massachusetts state appeals court, and could end up being referred to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), Hitt said.

Hitt referenced a case decided this week by the SJC - Louise Barron vs. Daniel Kolenda - which he believes should have been the standard by which Gildea decided the Nantucket case. In that case, the SJC ruled that government officials are prohibited from silencing members of the public based on the substance of their remarks during “public comment” periods of town meetings.

“We’re disappointed in the judge's decision and we’ve filed an appeal,” Hitt told the Current on Thursday. “The judge appears to have guessed at the law before waiting for the Supreme Judicial Court to speak, and it appears he guessed incorrectly. We believe his decision will be reversed on appeal. As a result of his erroneous decision, justice has not been done in this case.”

Gibson did not immediately return a message seeking comment. Pittman acknowledged the recent decision by the judge, but said that since the litigation is still pending with the appeal, he would decline to comment. Both Barros and Samuels did not immediately return messages about the latest courthouse developments.

Watch the meeting that sparked the lawsuit below:

The civil rights case against the town officials began as a companion complaint with the lawsuit Barros and Samuels filed against those responsible for the African Meeting House hate crime. A judge later severed the two complaints, putting them on separate tracks in the Superior Court system.

The other complaint concluded in June of 2022, when Judge Gildea entered a decision against island resident Dylan Ponce, who had previously been named in the civil rights lawsuit as the perpetrator of the hate crime.

Gildea ruled that Ponce was responsible for the racist graffiti discovered on the historic building five years ago, and that he violated the civil rights of Barros and Samuels. Gildea issued a permanent injunction against Ponce that orders him to stay away from the African Meeting House, have no contact with Barros or Samuels and stay at least 25 yards away from them in public, as well as requiring that Ponce not violate their civil rights in the future.

According to Gildea’s decision, the “undisputed facts” of the civil case show that “Mr. Ponce spray-painted the phrase “N****r Leave!” in large black letters on the doors of the African Meeting House on Nantucket. The next day (March 11 or 12), Mr. Ponce told his employer, Jeffrey Sayle, what he had done.”

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