CONCORD, NH – In the last eight days, two publicly-funded institutions—Plymouth State University and Newfound Regional High School—took actions against public employees who, last month, submitted letters to a court expressing support for former Exeter High School guidance counselor, Kristie Torbick, who admitted to sexually assaulting a 14-year-old student. The court ultimately sentenced Ms. Torbick to 2-1/2 to 5 years in prison for her crimes.
Devon Chaffee, ACLU of NH Executive Director, states: "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, shares his concerns: “The actions of Plymouth State University and Newfound Regional School District 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.”
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 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.