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State appeals dismissal of civil rights case against regional white supremacist group

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

The New Hampshire Department of Justice is asking a superior court judge to reconsider the dismissal of civil rights charges against a white supremacist group, arguing the court misinterpreted the statute surrounding what constitutes a trespass and free speech protections.

Earlier this month, Rockingham County Judge David Ruoff dismissedthe state’s case against NSC-131, ruling that the government was relying on an overly broad interpretation of the law and infringing on the group’s free speech rights.

Last summer, members of NSC-131, which extremism watchers label a white supremacist group, hung a banner over a roadway in Portsmouth that read “Keep New England White.” The group removed the banner after local police responded; NSC-131 did not have a permit to hang the banner.

In January, Attorney General John Formella filed the civil charges against the group and two of its alleged leaders, arguing that they had violated New Hampshire’s Civil Rights Act by trespassing and hanging the banner, which was motivated by racial animus.

Ruoff dismissed the case, arguing that NSC-131 was engaged in constitutionally protected free speech. Ruoff wrote that “the conduct alleged in the complaints, while reprehensible by most civilized standards, does not fit any definition of ‘trespass’ other than the one the Court has concluded is unconstitutional.”

In the appeal filed Friday, state prosecutors contend the court is misapplying the law.

“There is a general right to access public roads, parks, and sidewalks,” the attorney general’s office said. “They are traditional public fora. Yet, there is no unfettered right to affix and display signs on a highway overpass because it is a nonpublic forum and the conduct is prohibited by statute.”

The state said it is willing to further explain its case at a future hearing, if the court is willing.

In a statement posted to social media, NSC-131 praised the court’s initial ruling as a victory for their cause.

NSC-131, or the Nationalist Social Club, has been identified by the Anti-Defamation League as a New England-based neo-Nazi group founded in 2019 that “espouses racism, antisemitism and intolerance” and whose “membership is a collection of neo-Nazis and racist skinheads, many of whom have previous membership in other white supremacist groups.”

The group launched a crowdfunding effort on social media to cover its legal fees in the case. After initially failing to find a New Hampshire-based lawyer to represent them, a Massachusetts law firm agreed to handle the matter.

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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