Model Citizen? No. But Exeter Man Is At Center of First Amendment Dispute

Apr 22, 2019

Robert Frese outside his home in Exeter, N.H.
Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR

Robert Frese’s police file is as thick as the Bible, but it contains a very different collection of stories.

Take the time he hit a traffic flagger and drove off.

It was August 2017, and Frese, unhappy with a road closure in Portsmouth, bumped his car into Fred Chase before fleeing the scene.

“It was a Blue PT Cruiser with “TRUMP1” license plate, which was kind of interesting,” Chase told WMUR about the vehicle that struck him.

Frese, who denies he hit the driver, remembers that day differently.

“I go to the Stratham library. I’m looking at the news, and I see, police looking for a “TRUMP1” driver. That’s me. And I said, okay, I’m out of here, I don’t want to get my car towed.”

Frese turned himself in. He pled guilty. He still has that license place.

(Editor's note: we highly recommend listening to this story.)

Other documented run-ins with the law, and there is no shortage of them (in Exeter alone, there are 107 police reports since 2001), are more mundane: lots of motor vehicle infractions, disputes with neighbors, riding his bike on the sidewalk.

Then there are all the ‘No Trespass’ orders the 63-year old has accumulated over the years.

Here’s a partial list of the businesses in Exeter where Frese is no longer welcome:

Stillwell’s Ice Cream, Rite Aid, Ruffner Real Estate, Moe’s Italian Sandwiches, Blue Ribbon Dry Cleaners, Puddle Jumpers children’s clothing store, Luna Chic’s boutique...even the Congregational Church.

Most of these banishments stem from being caught rooting through their respective dumpsters. Frese is a passionate dumpster diver, a champion of rescued clothing, toiletries and food.

“You don’t know when you have a can of soup if the can was dented. You know, you ever sit down at a meal and say, ‘this tastes like it came from a dented can.’ I mean it’s ridiculous.”

Frese tells me this while reclining in a lazyboy in his spotless mobile home. He’s been on disability since the mid 90s, and spends most of his days volunteering at various horse and pet rescue facilities. His evenings appear to be spent taking in movies: there are hundreds and hundreds of VHS casettes lining the wall of his living room.

Never married, he declares, unprompted, that his two favorite women are Mother Teresa and Princess Diana, of whom he has a framed photograph on the wall.

“I mean obviously Mother Teresa wasn’t very attractive, but her dedication was incredible.”

Along with Mother Teresa and dented soup cans, Frese also has strong opinions about all those interactions with the Exeter Police Department.

Frese strikes his favored pose in front of his 'TRUMP1' license plate.
Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR

“These guys, I call them scumbags.”

In the span of just a few months, that blunt criticism of the local police department would get Frese arrested; get him a settlement check for $17,500; and put him at the center of a free speech case that could rewrite New Hampshire’s criminal defamation statute.

It all started with a newspaper article published last summer.

‘Dirty Cops’ And An Arrest Warrant

In May 2018, Alexander LaCasse, a reporter for the Seacoast Media Group, switched beats. After covering Kittery, he was reassigned to cover his hometown of Exeter.

For his first assignment, he wrote about a retirement party for a longtime Exeter police officer.

“It was going to be a front page story, a nice featury centerpiece,” says LaCasse.

The Exeter News-Letter led its weekly publication with the retirement story, and featured it on its homepage.

“I don’t think the Newsletter had finished being delivered that next day to our customers when I had a request from the police chief...to remove a comment of a man, I think the alias was ‘Exeter Bob.’”

It was actually ‘Bob Exeter,’ not Exeter Bob, who had posted the comment on the paper’s Facebook page.

Bob Frese.

“I was on social media exercising free speech, and said probably something like good riddance to the dirtiest cop I’ve ever met in my life,” says Frese.

The newspaper, not interested in angering the police, took down Frese’s comment.

“What they did being the cowards that they are is they ran and cried...and said would you please take that down, he said a bad thing about us. And they did,” says Frese.

So he re-posts the comment. Again, the newspaper takes it down.

Then a few weeks go by, and LaCasse gets an email from Frese.

“Bob had said, hey, I actually was arrested for posting these comments and was charged with ‘criminal defamation of character.”’

The Exeter Police filed criminal charges against Frese for the comment.

They did so under New Hampshire’s criminal defamation statute, which makes it a misdemeanor to say or write anything that you know is false that will expose someone to public hatred, contempt or ridicule.

Calling the Exeter Police dirty, they said, met that standard.

To commit criminal defamation, however, the perpetrator must knowingly tell a lie that harms someone. Bob Frese says he believes that this is a corrupt police department. He offers plenty of his own anecdotal examples.

“I saw them come flying down Court Street one day. High speed police, pulling over an old woman in a Volvo station wagon. My god super trooper, what did you think she was doing?”

The Exeter Police declined to comment for this story.

To be clear, Frese has provided no proof, no documentation that any Exeter cop is corrupt. The Exeter PD is not under any known investigation. Still, for his own reasons, Frese says he believes it.

And because he believes it, his comments are not a crime under New Hampshire’s statute. Even the N.H. Attorney General said as much in a legal memo it released on the case. The charges against Frese were quickly dropped.

With the help of the ACLU of New Hampshire, Frese then turned around and threatened to sue the police department for wrongful arrest. The department settled, and Frese got a check for $17,500.

All this earned him a fair amount of headlines, including in the New York Times.

“Bob has kind of almost become this martyr for the First Amendment,” says LaCasse, who has continued to cover the story in the Exeter News-Letter. “Whether or not that’s a good thing or a bad thing, or its less than it deserves, it’s kind of what it’s become.”

Thorn In the Side 

The ACLU is now using what happened to Frese to challenge the constitutionality of New Hampshire’s criminal defamation law in federal court.

"On their face, [criminal defamation laws] could be used against private individuals, media outlets, anyone who's engaging in speech whether it's in print or through the internet,” says Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the ACLU of New Hampshire.

These laws--25 states have one on the books--are a thorn in the side of First Amendment advocates, in part because of who typically gets accused.

“It’s usually people who criticize public officials or criticize member of law enforcement,” says Lata Nott, who directs the Freedom Forum Institute, a non-partisan group that advocates for the First Amendment.

Lott contends that the better avenue for handling defamation disputes is in the civil courts, where a judge or jury can award monetary damages for slander, rather than give the powerful the ability to simply arrest their critics to try to silence them.

(In 2017, a jury awarded three New Hampshire businessmen $274 million in damages for a series of controversial billboards erected by a fourth man.)

As for Bob Frese, Nott says his is exactly the kind of speech worth protecting.

“I’ll say that when it comes to the First Amendment, a lot of times the plaintiff you have is not necessarily someone you would like, because of course that’s what tests the bounds of free speech,” she says.

On average, just three people per year are charged in New Hampshire with criminal defamation.

It’s rare...and yet, Bob Frese has been arrested twice on this charge.

A few years ago, he posted at least 30 allegedly false things on Craigslist about a life coach. Frese pled guilty, but he maintains that, like the more recent charge, it’s all bogus. The police, specifically the Exeter Police, just have it in for him.

I asked Frese why he believes the local department targets him?

“I call them on what they are. They don’t like me going around telling the truth. In my opinion, they are the dirtiest bunch of cops, most corrupt cops that I’ve met in my life.”

And what do you think they’d say about you?

“He’s the most disgusting low-life degenerate on the face of the earth,” guesses Frese. “But guess what, I sleep like a baby every night.”

Frese told me several times inside his VHS-lined living room that it takes a criminal to spot a criminal. That his extensive arrest record and near continuous exposure to law enforcement makes him the best person to speak out against corruption.