Last month, The Valley Patriot was present in Hillsborough County Superior Court in NH following the First Amendment trial of Acadia Insurance Company vs. Michael Demers.
Ironically, during the trial, Acadia asked a judge to not only throw a member of the press out of a public civil trial in a public building, but then made a motion to strip Salem, NH resident Michael Demers of his First Amendment right to publish photos or videos taken by the Valley Patriot during the trial.
The issue before the court is a complaint against Mr. Demers by the multi-million dollar corporation, Acadia Insurance Company, who represents Haffner’s Oil Company.
Haffner’s Oil Company overfilled the oil tank of the Demers family in Salem, N.H., pumping 250 gallons of oil into their basement. The oil seeped into the walls, floors, into the ground, contaminating the entire property. Acadia spent months contracting with environmental companies to clean up the property but did not clean it all.
Mr. Demers says those representatives from Acadia [as well as the environmental contractor] promised that they would “make it right” and “put the home back in the condition it was in before the spill.”
There is no disputing that they did not do that, as the house still smells of oil and the Demers family claims to have had health problems because of it.
“We took them to court and we lost,” Demers says, adding that even though Acadia found a “legal maneuver to get out of completely cleaning up the site”, he believes Acadia has a moral obligation to do so. So, he started an online boycott of Haffner’s and Acadia on line.
“They looked my 80 year old mother in the eyes and promised her they would make it right. They never did that. We sued and we lost in court, fine. But they still have a moral obligation to keep their word.”
Now, Acadia has filed a court complaint against Demers claiming harassment, asking the court to force the removal of Demers’ boycott pages on Facebook and Twitter.
“They are trying to silence me,” Demers says. “They aren’t asking for money, they aren’t claiming damages, they just want to silence me so people won’t know what they did to my mother’s home and how they refused to make it right.”
FIRST AMENDMENT LAWSUIT TAKES A TROUBLING TURN
During the trial last month, Attorney Michele Kenney from Pierce Atwood in Portsmouth NH decided to make the presence of The Valley Patriot an issue before the judge. Kenney represents Acadia Insurance.
Attorney Kenney first objected to 75-year old Valley Patriot court reporter Janet Aldrich [on loan from Catch of the Day Video News] being present during the trial, saying she should not be allowed in the public proceeding because she didn’t get “prior notice” that a reporter was to be present.
She also claimed that because The Valley Patriot is owned by “A Tom Duggan, a high school friend of Mr. Demers” that the reporter was only there to get photos and video to continue the harassment of Acadia on behalf of Mr. Demers.
When the judge dressed Atty. Kenney down saying she was not going to violate the first amendment rights of the press by having a reporter removed from a public trial, Attorney Kenney changed her tune, saying she wasn’t trying to violate the First Amendment Rights of the Valley Patriot reporter (which she clearly did) but that she wanted to violate the rights of Mr. Demers by having the court order him not to use any photos or videos published by the Valley Patriot in his on-line boycott pages.
“First of all,” Valley Patriot publisher Tom Duggan said on his podcast program, “Mr. Demers was not my friend in high school, she probably got that from half listening to my show. But we discussed this on the air. Mike Demers was not my friend in high school. Mike Demers used to beat me up in high school. In fact, Mike Demers is largely the reason I transferred out of the Vocational School to Lawrence High. He used to stick me in a locker and spit at me. So, the notion that we are only covering this story to help my ‘high school friend’ was nothing more than an excuse to head off the bad press they are going to get by trying to strip away the First Amendment rights of Mr. Demers. In fact, because I did know Mr. Demers in high school, I purposely chose not to attend the trial and sent someone else to get photos and video (which you can find on YouTube) to make sure I did not become a distraction or issue during the trial. Somehow, they tried anyway. But it really goes to show you what Acadia Insurance thinks about the right of the free press or the free speech. That action alone should send a signal to the judge that Acadia will do anything to silence any bad press. That action alone says to First Amendment advocates, like me, that they don’t deserve to win against Mr. Demers.”
JUDGE REJECTS ACADIA’S EFFORTS TO VIOLATE FIRST AMENDMENT
“What we are asking,” Attorney Michele Kenney told the judge. “is for the defendant to be enjoined from using or manipulating any photographic depictions that are taken here today. That’s our concern. We don’t wish to enjoin the freedom of the press.”
The judge rejected Acadia’s efforts.
“As to the objecting of the press person being present that’s a whole separate issue,” the judge told Attorney Kenney. “I don’t think there is any [legitimate] objection to that, and I’m not going to issue an injunction to deter future behavior [of Mr. Demers]. I’m going to rule what is before me, and if there’s an issue after my ruling then I will address it at that time.”
DEMERS SAYS THE BOYCOTT WILL CONTINUE
“While they are trying to silence me in court, they look to have a reporter thrown out because they want to cover up what they are doing to me. Then she [Attorney Kenney] says she doesn’t want to violate the reporter’s rights, no no. She wanted to violate my rights by asking the court to issue what’s called prior restraint against what I ‘might say or do’ in the future. That’s what Acadia thinks about our rights.”
“If they get away with silencing me on this thing here, anyone who wants to boycott a million dollar corporation or blow the whistle on their misdeeds so to speak, could be silenced. Boom. Done. You have no right to complain as long as they can afford expensive lawyers and twist the law against people who don’t know any better.”
DUGGAN WAS LESS KIND
“Michele Kenney should turn in her bar card. She knows what prior restraint is. She knows what the First Amendment is. But she’s going to do whatever it takes, even if that means violating the First Amendment to help her client run over this guy. First she tried to have our reporter thrown out, then she denied what she had just said seconds earlier. This is why people hate lawyers.”
The trial continues through March.
For more background on the Acadia vs. Demers suit visit: valleypatriot.com/acadia-insurance-company-sues-nh-man-for-libel-over-boycott