NSC-131 members say they can’t find an NH defense attorney for a pending civil rights case

Members of NSC-131, a white supremacist group active in New England, told court Wednesday they were struggling to find a New Hampshire attorney willing to defend them against allegations that they violated the state’s civil rights law .

“Given that this is a controversial issue, given that no member of the New Hampshire Bar is willing to step up and be a local attorney, I’m effectively denied local attorney,” said Leo Cullinan, one of the defendants in the case, Judge David Ruoff said during a preliminary hearing in Rockingham Superior Court on Wednesday.

New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella announced a civil lawsuit against NSC-131 and two of its members, Cullinan and Christopher Hood, in January. The defendants are accused of stepping on a bridge in Portsmouth last summer and putting up a banner that read “Keep New England White”.

The case – believed to be the first of its kind in New Hampshire – comes as the state sees a spike in reported hate crimes and incidents of prejudice, including a spate of vandalism in Portsmouth last week that is still under investigation. If convicted, NSC-131 and other defendants face fines of up to $5,000.

Before Wednesday’s hearing, Hood filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that the group’s actions were protected by the First Amendment.

“So-called ‘hate speech’ or speech denigrating other groups or individuals – and the defendants by no means admit that their communications convey such a message – have been ruled by the Supreme Court that they still fall within the category of protected speech,” Hood wrote in a court filing.

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The state has argued that hanging the banner on the bridge constituted trespassing and was motivated by racist animus, making it a violation of civil rights law.

“While an overpass fence is public property, it is not a public forum and is subject to restrictions on when, where and what may be placed or displayed on it,” prosecutors wrote in another court filing.

Both Hood and Cullinan have asked Ruoff, the judge overseeing the case, to allow foreign attorneys to represent them against the New Hampshire Attorney General’s allegations.

Williams Gens, a Massachusetts attorney, stepped forward to represent Hood, but Ruoff previously denied that request, citing administrative rules from the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

Wednesday’s hearing lasted about 30 minutes, with Ruoff saying he would consult with the out-of-state attorney on the matter. Ten members of NSC-131 were present in the courtroom, seated in the first two rows and wearing matching khaki pants and black shirts, a typical uniform for the group.

Speaking to the media after Wednesday’s hearing, Gens said the case jeopardizes more than the defendants’ First Amendment rights.

“This case is transitioning from a free speech case to a due process case because these guys can’t get legal counsel,” he said.

While criminal defendants have access to a public defender if they cannot afford their own lawyer, civil defendants do not have the same opportunity.

Also at Wednesday’s hearing, Hood and Cullinan requested a jury trial for the judge to decide at a later hearing.

Assistant Attorney General Sean Locke, who heads the New Hampshire Department of Justice’s civil rights division, urged the judge to schedule a one-day trial within 60 to 90 days. The defendants requested that a trial be postponed until the fall.

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Afterwards, Locke told reporters the case would be treated the same as any other alleged violation of state law.

“This is behavior that is neither accepted nor tolerated in the state of New Hampshire,” he said.