A judge in New Hampshire's 4th Circuit Court blasted a school board for "silencing" a concerned parent who exposed an objectionable reading assignment given to his teen daughter.
William Baer was handcuffed and escorted out of a school board meeting May. 6 after refusing to comply with the board's two-minute rule. He was voicing concern about "Nineteen Minutes," a book required for his daughter's high school honors reading class that he compared to a "transcript for a triple-X-rated movie."
In dismissing charges against Baer, Judge James M. Carroll said the court "does agree with the defendant's argument that, often in an official meeting or at the court, for that matter, individuals, from time to time, may be disruptive, but the disruptiveness should not be cause for an arrest in the first instance."
"The sequence of the arrest actions cause pause by the court as to the chilling, if not silencing of a citizen by the state, for actions which do not warrant a criminal arrest nor conviction. The court finds that the actions for 'order' by the state do not 'balance,' in the facts of this particular case, the speech rights of the defendant."
Further, the judge ruled that there simply was not evidence to sustain the charges brought by the board against Baer.
The school board had claimed Baer "purposely cause[d] a breach of the peace by disrupting the orderly conduct of business," but the court said that "no reasonable fact finder could find beyond a reasonable doubt that" Baer's actions did that.
Secondly, a claim that Baer refused to comply with a lawful order of a peace officer isn't substantiated, the judge wrote.
"The court questions the constitutionality of the state's action in the sequence as memorialized by the deposition," he said.
The last claim by the board that Baer "purposely caused a breach of the peace by disrupting any lawful assembly … without lawful authority" also was without foundation, the ruling said.
The board, the judge confirmed, said the meeting already was completed, and "there was no interruption of the meeting."
The judge pointed out the focal point of the argument was the assignment to read material "concerning a school shooting, suicide, and, what has been described as, sexually explicit descriptions inappropriate for the defendant's daughter['s] reading."
The judge said the school failed to follow its own practice of notifying parents of such objectionable material.
"The court does not find the actions of the defendant to be criminal in nature which is necessary in the ordering of restrictions on a citizen's liberties in First Amendment considerations," the judge wrote. "The court finds that the defendant's action never created a breach of peace sustaining a criminal complaint."
Bear said: "Since my arrest this past May, my life and the lives of my family have been in disarray. After 7-1/2 months of being pursued by the state of New Hampshire, through the Gilford Police Department and school board, I am obviously pleased that all charges have been dismissed. Belknap County Judge James Carroll showed me there still is some justice in our system."
But he pointed out that the counts were not "dropped" by authorities.
"They were dismissed by a New Hampshire Circuit Court judge after a full hearing. In spite of having months to review the law and the facts, the prosecutor refused to drop the charges or even propose a plea, but rather continued to seek a conviction to justify the state's violation of my First Amendment right of free speech, and my unlawful arrest," he said.
"And what about the incident that gave rise to all this? That is, Gilford High School requiring my 9th grade daughter to read material that is unfit to print in virtually any newspaper in the country. If someone were handing out this material right in front of the classroom in which students were reading the text, he would most likely be arrested, prosecuted, and convicted for distribution of pornographic material to a minor. What about a school system which cannot [e]nsure that proper notice be given to parents of a child mandated to read such material due to the school's 'oversight?' What would you think if you found out that last year, when the book was also required reading, the school administration and teacher made the same 'mistake' and also failed to provide notice?" he said.
"What about the chilling effect on First Amendment guaranteed speech that these arrests and prosecutions have on our society regardless of the outcome? How many people will avoid speaking publicly knowing they can easily receive the same treatment I did, and likely worse?"
WND reported when Baer's daughter, Marina, blasted the board:
"I just watched my father get arrested because he broke the two-minute rule at a board of education meeting," she said. "This just shows you resort to force at the first turn of conflict and I'm appalled.
"I don't trust you. I haven't. I honestly don't feel safe around you people," she said, before turning away to leave.
A report at BizPacReview by Tom Tillison noted that an official, either with the district or the board, demanded the 14-year-old state her address before she was allowed to speak.
"That a public official can have such a callous attitude toward a child in light of what just happened is hard to believe," he wrote.
On an earlier video is her father:
Baer was at the board meeting to protest not just the assignment but the district's failure to notify parents of the book's objectionable contents.
According to the Laconia Daily Sun, Baer challenged the board to read aloud the controversial portion of "Nineteen Minutes" during the meeting, but school officials refused.
Before speaking, Baer was told he had two minutes to speak.
He spoke beyond the time limit and sat down but then exchanged words with another parent who approved of the book.
"So what is the remedy here?" Baer asked.
The board said it would not take questions on the matter.
“Sir, would you please be respectful of the other people?” a school board member responded.
“Like you’re respectful of my daughter, right? And my children?” he countered.
"Please, be quiet," admonished the board member.
A police officer then arrived at the scene, instructing Baer to leave with him.
“You are going to arrest me because I violated the two-minute rule?” the father said. “I guess you are going to have to arrest me.”
But Baer received support from other parents.
Sarah Carrignan said, according to the Sun, that she was "'utterly appalled that this was acceptable."
"My son should never have had the book in his hand."
"Nineteen Minutes," published in 2007 by Jodi Picoult, was described by a reviewer on Good Reads as not having "the artistic writing that Picoult's earlier novels did."
"In 'Nineteen Minutes,' Picoult told a story – a good one. But the nuance and magic of her earlier writing is gone," the review said. It's about, "Peter Houghton, picked on by school mates from the first day of kindergarten, enters Sterling High, and in nineteen minutes kills ten and wounds another nineteen students."
The reviewer recommended it "for someone desperate for anything to read."