The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has sued the town of Shirley to overturn a decision by selectmen to ban a local official, Robert Schuler, from town property two years ago after he made a reference to shooting a gun during a public meeting.
Schuler’s lawyer in the case says his comments “could not have been reasonably interpreted as a true threat.”
“What he said was videotaped,” said Nicholas Leitzes, who is working on Schuler’s case pro bono for the ACLU. which filed the lawsuit Feb. 14 in federal court.
“I think enough people have seen this video that you can tell he was using hyperbole. He might have said instead, ‘If this doesn’t happen, I’m going to pull my hair out.’ I don’t think anyone would have restrained him from pulling his hair out if he had said that. Context is key here,” said Leitzes, whose practice is based in Boston.
Shirley officials were mum on the lawsuit last week. Selectman David Swain declined to comment, citing the pending litigation; Selectwoman Kendra Dumont did not return a call seeking comment; and an employee in the selectmen’s office said Selectman Armand Deveau had announced his resignation from the board and was in Florida.
David Berry, the town’s chief administrative officer, was put on paid administrative leave last month, amid calls by selectmen for his resignation.
The ACLU’s lawsuit alleges that the ban from town property was in retaliation for Schuler’s criticisms of selectmen, and that it violates his constitutional rights to free speech, to petition the government, and to due process.
Leitzes said the lawsuit was filed after the ACLU contacted the town and presented its views on how the ban violates Schuler’s rights, and the town did not change its stance.
The ACLU’s lawsuit is seeking unspecified monetary damages as well as having the ban overturned.
According to a record of the meeting on May 2, 2011, Schuler said: “The only question I have about the budget is what have the selectmen done with this, if anything? Don’t tell me they haven’t done anything with it, or I’m going to pull my gun out and start shooting or something. It drives me nuts!’’
The Board of Selectmen voted unanimously a week later to ban Schuler from town property.
Schuler issued a public apology for the comment, and police conducted an investigation. They did not file any charges, but Schuler surrendered two handguns and a shotgun to police.
Leitzes said the town hasn’t returned the weapons to Schuler.
Schuler, through Leitzes, declined to comment on the case.
Schuler is a member of Shirley’s Finance Committee and its Sewer Commission, and has had to participate in board meetings via telephone due to the ban from town property, said Leitzes. Additionally, he’s had to vote via absentee ballot, and his participation in town government has been hampered.
“He’s had to miss Town Meetings and the like,” Leitzes said. “To some people that doesn’t matter, but Mr. Schuler is an active participant. It matters to him quite a bit that he can’t do these things anymore.”
Leitzes said Schuler has been punished more harshly than if he had been formally charged and convicted.
“Let’s say he was convicted of making a threat,” Leitzes said. “I don’t believe the punishment would be a banishment from town property in perpetuity.”
Frank Kolarik, the chairman of the town’s Finance Committee, said Schuler should “absolutely, no question” be allowed back into Town Hall.
Kolarik said Schuler’s comment “was something that probably shouldn’t have been said, but it was an expression of frustration” and not a threat. He added that he thinks politics played a role in the ban.
“The whole thing was just a shambles, I thought, from the beginning,” Kolarik said.
Calvin Hennick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.