MANCHESTER — Judge James Carroll of the fourth Circuit Court, Laconia Division, who dismissed charges against two citizens who were arrested while speaking at public meetings, has been honored with a Quill & Ink Award by the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications for his staunch defense of the right to freedom of speech.
"It is an honor," Carroll said yesterday, "and I'm humbled by it. But, I was just doing my job. I'm pleased to accept the award on the part of every judge who are doing their jobs."
Police removed William Baer from a meeting of the Gilford School Board when, after challenging a teacher's decision to assign ninth grade students a book he deemed inappropriate, he continued speaking after being ruled out of order. Baer was charged with two counts of breaching the peace and one count of disobeying a police officer.
In dismissing the charges, Carroll described Baer's behavior as "impolite but not criminal." The case, he wrote offers "an excellent civics lesson, a perfect case for modeling free speech guarantees." Baer's arrest, the judge ruled "cause pause by the court as to the chilling, if not silencing, of a citizen by the state for actions which do not warrant a criminal arrest or conviction."
In Alton, Jeffrey Clay began claiming that the Board of Selectmen regularly flouted the Right-to-Know law in December 2013 and obeyed when asked to leave a meeting a year later. In January 2015, the selectmen adopted rules for for members of the public to follow when commenting at meetings. A month later, when Clay repeated his charges against the selectboard, he was ruled out of order and when he continued to speak was removed from the room, placed under arrest and charged with disorderly conduct by the police.
In dismissing the charges against Clay, Carroll found that "the silencing is nothing less than censorship of the defendant's criticism given at a time and place designated by the board itself for public input.." Furthermore, the judge noted that Clay "was acting within the very rules promulgated by the board as well as within his constitutional rights."
Carroll said it was "unusual" for a district court judge to have an opportunity to rule on a constitutional issue, let alone "to have lightning strike twice in the same place." He said that in both cases he considered the circumstances of the defendants before the court and the interests of the state and wrote orders protecting the right of individuals to speak freely before public bodies.
Carroll said that while his orders addressed the two particular cases before the court, he expected "they would have some deterrent effect. We need to ensure that our constitutional rights are kept alive and well."
Carroll was appointed to the bench by Governor John Lynch in January, 2011, during his second term as Belknap County Attorney. A 1969 graduate of the College of the Holy Cross, he received his law degree from Franklin Pierce Law Center in 1987. Long a mainstay of the local community, Carroll has been honored with its highest awards for community service the Norman Marsh Award for Leadership and the James R. Irwin Award of the Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce for Community Service.
The award will be presented at the 13th annual First Amendment Awards ceremony at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord on Thursday, November 12, at which Chris Matthews, the host of "Hardball" on MSNBC, will be the keynote speaker.