CONCORD — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire has denounced Plymouth State University and the Newfound Area School District for their response to employees’ expressions of support for convicted pedophile Kristie Torbick.
In letters of support, several former colleagues called for leniency in Torbick’s sentencing. Since then, Plymouth State decided not to renew the contract of Dr. Nancy Strapko, an adjunct teaching lecturer, who maintained that the 14-year-old victim was actually the pursuer in the case. The university said two other employees who testified on Torbick’s behalf would have to complete additional Title IX training before returning to work.
Newfound Regional High School guidance counselor Shelly Philbrick, who testified that incarcerating Torbick would be “a sad injustice to her own three children,” resigned her position this week, and the Newfound Area School Board accepted her resignation on Tuesday.
Devon Chaffee, executive director of the New Hampshire chapter of the ACLU, said, “The ACLU-NH denounces sexual assault of any kind. Such actions against a minor are particularly egregious. The public is not served, however, by silencing the free speech of citizens speaking in their private capacity. As a society, we can and must support victims of sexual assault and steadfastly uphold the rights of citizens to participate in the criminal justice process.”
Gilles Bissonnette, ACLU-NH’s legal director, said, “The actions of Plymouth State University and Newfound Regional School District [sic] present serious free speech concerns, and these institutions may have violated New Hampshire law. New Hampshire provides even broader free speech protections to public employees than the protections that exist under the First Amendment. As RSA 98-E:1 states, ‘a person employed as a public employee in any capacity shall have a full right to publicly discuss and give opinions as an individual on all matters concerning any government entity and its policies.’
“These protections exist out of a fear that public employers may do exactly what was done here — namely, terminate employees for unpopular speech done in an individual capacity concerning the government, unrelated to the employee’s work.
“These actions against free speech are especially problematic with respect to former Plymouth State University lecturer and clinical mental health counselor Dr. Nancy Strapko, who was terminated, and a Newfound Regional High School guidance counselor, who was forced to resign.”
In a statement to the media, the Civil Liberties Union said, “The actions of Plymouth State University and Newfound Regional High School are additionally concerning because they may deter public employees from, in their individual capacities, giving testimony in criminal court proceedings. The sentencing phase of criminal trials routinely utilize[s] character witnesses. Our justice system depends on such individuals feeling free to testify in court, including on behalf of individuals who have been accused or convicted of crimes. The chilling effect potentially created by these institutions’ decisions is deeply damaging to the fair administration of justice.”
An attempt to reach PSU officials on Friday afternoon was unsuccessful.
School Administrative Unit 4 Superintendent Stacy Buckley said, “The Newfound Area School District did not take action against Shelly Philbrick; the School Board accepted her resignation.”
Noting that she had received a number of letters from parents expressing concerns about having Philbrick providing guidance to their children, Buckley issued a statement last month noting that Philbrick did not have the district’s permission and was not representing the school district’s position on Torbick’s character, but she added, “That being said, Ms. Philbrick has the right to speak on this matter as a member of the public.”
Erin Camire of Bristol was among those calling for action against Philbrick, asking the superintendent to hold a special meeting so residents could weigh in on the situation.
“Many parents are concerned, as I feel they should be, with her requests for leniency for a self-confessed and convicted child molester,” Camire wrote.
“I have already instructed my step-son on what to do if he should be in a position that he must speak to Ms. Philbrick. I will remove him from school that day and bring him to a third party counselor before he is to sit with her. … I am not saying that, because of her comments, that she will also do such heinous acts, but her judgment is not to be trusted.”