A motion to dismiss several counts of a civil rights lawsuit filed against town leaders was heard Friday in Nantucket Superior Court, with the unsolved hate crime against the African Meeting House a central theme in the pending litigation. Following approximately one hour of legal arguments, Judge Douglas Wilkins took the matter under advisement and did not immediately rule on the motion.
The lawsuit was filed in back in January on behalf of James Barros and Rose Marie Samuels, who alleged that members of the Nantucket Select Board, along with Town Manager Libby Gibson and Police Chief Bill Pittman, violated their civil rights during a Select Board meeting on March 11, 2020. The lawsuit claims Barros and Samuels had their right to free speech abridged during the meeting in which both attempted to express their frustration with the lack of progress in the investigation into the defacing of the African Meeting House two years earlier. Barros and Samuels allege in the lawsuit they were unable to exercise their free speech rights due to “threats, intimidation, and coercion.”
Deborah Ecker, the attorney representing the Nantucket Select Board, Gibson, and Pittman, and the plaintiff’s attorney, John Hitt, shared conflicting interpretations of what happened during the public comment section of the March 11, 2020 meeting. Both attempted to address whether the conduct of Select Board chair Dawn Holdgate, Gibson and Pittman constituted “threats, intimidation, and coercion” during the tense exchange, and if Barros and Samuels were allowed to finish their comments to the board or not.
“They (Barros and Samuels) were allowed to speak, they were allowed to finish, it’s 13 minutes and 20 seconds, and yes Mrs. Gibson is not a member of the board, she doesn’t have to sit there and listen to people criticize her,” Ecker told Judge Wilkins, referring to Gibson walking out of the meeting after expressing frustration with Samuel’s allegation that she had not been truthful. “There were not threats, intimidation or coercion. The board members tell her they appreciated her speaking. It’s certainly not a violation of anyone’s civil rights.”
Hitt, the attorney for Barros and Samuels, said both Gibson and the Select Board members attempted to cutoff Samuels from speaking, and that Pittman’s comments during the meeting that alluded to Barros’ conduct during the investigation were intimidating.
“Ms. Samuels was in fact cutoff,” Hitt said. “While she is speaking, in the course of her comments, both defendant Gibson and defendant Holdgate address her and in one instance defendant Gibson says something to the effect of ‘you shall not speak. You will not speak. Your speech is in essence in violation of the board’s policy.’ As she’s making her comments, you can hear defendant Holdgate, the chair, saying ‘we’ve got to stop this. Rosemary, you have to stop your speech’.”