The small town of Gilmanton, New Hampshire and a selectman who owns a winery have successfully defended themselves against multiple claims of defamation brought by a well-known and politically active local couple.
But the town must face further legal proceedings over whether it retaliated against the couple and violated their First Amendment rights when it ordered them to remove a yard sign, blocked the wife from being a ballot clerk, and prevented her from speaking at a public hearing.
On the latter charges, the U.S. District Court for New Hampshire did not rule for Brett and Brenda Currier but said there are some issues of fact that must be resolved and thus it rejected the town’s bid to have those claims against it dismissed along with the others.
Brenda and Brett Currier are longtime Gilmanton residents who have been active in the community. Brenda has worked as a police department secretary, a school aide and receptionist, as an emergency medical technician for the fire department, and as a ballot clerk. Her husband, Brett, has served on the town’s board of selectmen, the town budget committee, and as a volunteer firefighter.
Gilmanton is a rural town with about 4,000 residents.
At various times, the Curriers have been at odds with certain city officials and residents. Controversies have arisen over their contention that their son deserved to be named police chief, that they had a right to have a “support the police” yard sign, questioning of personnel decisions made by town selectmen after Brett was no longer on the board, challenging the license of a local winery owned by a political opponent who then accused them of harassment, repeated requests for public records that the town said led to safety concerns and the closing of town hall, and other incidents.
At one point, in response to cuts in the police budget, the Curriers erected a “Support the Police even if the Selectmen Don’t” sign on their property. The town sent them a cease-and-desist letter telling them to take it down, citing a town zoning ordinance that required permits for certain signs and that only permitted signs advertising a business or industry. The American Civil Liberties Union backed the Curriers in their bid to keep their lawn sign and they won.
The various disputes were played out in public statements as well as in private conversations.
The Curriers’ suit alleged that the town and the selectman who owned the winery defamed them on numerous instances and retaliated against them for exercising their constitutional rights to free speech.
The court agreed with the town and granted summary judgment for defendants on the defamation complaints. The court cited a lack of evidence by the Curriers that any of the allegedly harmful statements even took place.
“Many of the instances of defamation alleged in the complaint are not supported by any evidence in the record. Moreover, these instances supposedly occurred during conversations at which the Curriers themselves were not present, and thus even had the Curriers attested to these allegations in their depositions or declarations, they would be hearsay that the court could not consider in deciding summary judgment,” the court stated.
The court also said many of the allegedly defamatory statements were non-actionable statements of opinion.
In addition, the court agreed with the defendants that the Curriers were “limited purpose public figures” with respect to the winery dispute, and they failed under this standard to prove that the winery owner acted with actual malice by clear and convincing evidence. The court said the winery owner had a free speech right to defend himself and his business. Individuals may become limited-purpose public figures when they “have thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved.”
The town also argued that it was immune from the First Amendment retaliation claims because it cannot be held vicariously liable for actions by an employee, whether the winery owner-selectman or another city worker.
However, the court said an issue of material fact exists as to whether some of the instances of alleged retaliation can be properly attributed to the town itself. Those instances include the order to remove a yard sign, not renewing Brenda’s position as a ballot clerk, and preventing her from speaking at a public hearing.
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