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After latest dismissal, AG plans to appeal NSC-131 civil rights case to NH Supreme Court

Rockingham County Superior Court, Brentwood, NH.
Dan Tuohy
Rockingham County Superior Court, Brentwood, NH.

The New Hampshire Attorney General’s office has hit another roadblock in its efforts to prosecute a white supremacist group, but plans to appeal its case to the state supreme court.

A Rockingham County Superior Court judge has again rejected New Hampshire prosecutors’ legal case against NSC-131, a hate group active across New England, saying it relied on an overly broad interpretation of the Civil Rights Act that threatened to stifle free speech protections.

The state’s case hinges on an incident in which NSC-131 members trespassed onto a bridge in Portsmouth last summer and used zip ties to hang a banner reading “Keep New England White.”

Judge David Ruoff, in a ruling issued Oct. 17, wrote that the state’s trespassing case relied on an unreasonable expectation that the group know all local ordinances.

“The absence of a knowing mental state would charge the public with maintaining an actual, encyclopedic knowledge of a potentially limitless number of existing and future regulations governing all types of public fora on all government property before engaging in otherwise protected speech—even with a good faith belief in the lawfulness of the conduct,” wrote Ruoff. “This is not reasonable to expect of the public.”

The Attorney General’s office has since asked Ruoff to reconsider that stance, writing in court filings that legal precedent generally requires people to be aware of the laws, and that forcing the state to prove someone knowingly broke a statute such as trespassing would render the Civil Rights Act “ineffective in protecting the public from bias-motivated unlawful conduct, which this court has recognized is a compelling governmental interest.”

In a statement, the Attorney General’s office said in addition to its request for reconsideration, it is preparing an appeal to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

Ruoff initially dismissed the case in June, ruling that the Attorney General’s office was improperly applying the law against NSC-131 and two of its purported leaders, Christopher Hood and Leo Cullinan. Cullinan died earlier this summer, but the case against Hood and the group remains active.

State prosecutors appealed the decision in August, again contending the group trespassed onto government property and hung the banner in violation of a local ordinance, and that their conduct was motivated by racial animus.

Initial violations of the Civil Rights Act carry potential fines but no jail time.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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