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Judge dismisses civil rights case against NSC-131, a blow to prosecutors seeking to rein in white supremacist group

Christopher Hood, left, along with Leo Cullinan, during a hearing in March.
Todd Bookman
Christopher Hood, left, along with Leo Cullinan, during a hearing in March.

A superior court judge is dismissing a high profile civil rights case against a regional white supremacist group and its leadership, ruling that New Hampshire prosecutors used an overly broad interpretation of state law to stifle protected speech.

The ruling handed down Monday came after Attorney General John Formella brought a civil rights petition against the group, NSC-131, and two of its members, Leo Cullinan and Christopher Hood, in January.

The defendants are accused of trespassing onto a bridge in Portsmouth last summer, and hanging a banner that read “Keep New England White.”

The civil case, which had been scheduled for trial in late July, came with potential fines for Hood and Cullinan, but no jail time.

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing their actions were protected on free speech grounds, and that they removed the banner as soon as they were notified by law enforcement that they were potentially violating a Portsmouth ordinance.

In a 21-page opinion released Monday, Rockingham County Superior Court Judge David Ruoff dismissed the petitions, ruling that the state’s interpretation of the trespass ordinance, as well as the Civil Rights Statute, was overly broad as it applied to the banner.

“The conduct alleged in the complaints, while reprehensible by most civilized standards, does not fit any definition of ‘trespass’ other than the one the Court has concluded is unconstitutional,” Ruoff wrote.

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office said it would appeal.

Attorney General John Formella at a podium during a press conference
Todd Bookman/NHPR
Attorney General John Formella announced a civil complaint had been filed against NSC-131 during a press conference in Portsmouth in January.

“The Attorney General feels this is a critical case. We will be filing a motion for reconsideration within the 10-day deadline,” the office said.

NSC-131, or the Nationalist Social Club, has been identified by the Anti-Defamation League as a New England-based neo-Nazi group founded in 2019 that “espouses racism, antisemitism and intolerance” and whose “membership is a collection of neo-Nazis and racist skinheads, many of whom have previous membership in other white supremacist groups.”

Members of NSC-131 have appeared sporadically around New England, displaying racist banners, chanting, and attempting to disrupt drag events. The group often films its activities and then post videos on social media. The size of its membership is unclear.

The group posted about the dismissal of the case on social media, but has not yet issued a statement. Their lawyer didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Hood and Cullinen were initially unable to find legal counsel from New Hampshire willing to represent them, prompting the court to approve a Massachusetts-based defense team. The group also launched a crowdfunding effort on social media to cover its legal fees.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University. He can be reached at tbookman@nhpr.org.