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Shirley settles lawsuit by town official banned over gun remark

The town of Shirley has paid $35,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by an elected official who was barred from town property two years ago after he made comments about shooting at a public meeting.

The ban was lifted against Robert Schuler, and he can again attend meetings at the town offices, according to his lawyer.

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During a May 2, 2011, meeting of Shirley’s Finance Committee, Schuler, who also serves on the town’s Sewer Commission, 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!’’

Schuler issued a public apology for the comments, and police conducted an investigation, but did not file any charges. Still, selectmen barred him from town property indefinitely, forcing him to attend board meetings via telephone.

In February, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts sued the town on Schuler’s behalf, contending that his comments did not constitute a legitimate threat.

The suit alleged the town property ban was in retaliation for Schuler’s criticism of selectmen, and that it violated his constitutional rights to free speech, to petition the government, and to due process.

“We are sensitive to the current atmosphere and people’s fears of violence,” said Laura Rótolo, an ACLU attorney. “But where the law draws the line is whether it’s a true threat.

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“He was expressing frustrations, and he used the word guns, but he could have just as easily said, ‘This budget makes me want to hit my head against the wall.’”

The town rescinded the ban last month, while a settlement was being negotiated, Rótolo said. A final settlement was reached Aug. 12, but the ACLU waited until Wednesday — after the town’s check cleared, said Rótolo — to announce it.

Rótolo said the entire $35,000 will go to the ACLU to cover legal fees.

Through Rótolo, Schuler declined to comment on the settlement, and selectmen did not immediately respond to phone messages.

Adam Simms, a Boston lawyer who represented the town, defended officials’ actions.

“My feeling is, in light of the rash of shootings in this country in the past several years, I think the Board of Selectmen would have been remiss if it did not take action two years ago, and I think the action was entirely appropriate,” he said.

Simms added that, since Schuler has not made further comments that Shirley town officials felt were threatening, they determined Schuler’s ban could be rescinded without jeopardizing public safety.

The settlement comes as officials in a number of Massachusetts communities report that their public meetings are increasingly marked by an uncivil tone.

Some of Salisbury’s recent municipal meetings have devolved into shouting matches, a resident overturned a table at a health board meeting in Hanson last fall, and last month a Dracut selectman called other officials “pig-headed.”

Tomas Spath, cofounder of Houston’s Institute for Civility in Government, said many people have lost the ability to handle politics in a civil manner.

“I think we get frustrated because we just don’t know how to work through issues,” he said. “We believe that in our society, we all need to take a deep breath and start over again and work through our issues before we get to a place where we lambaste one another.”

Frank Kolarik, former chairman of the Finance Committee, resigned last month due to illness, but he was at the meeting where Schuler made the remark, and he said he did not consider it a threat.

“It was strictly a comment that was made off the cuff, without any intention of anything bad,” Kolarik said. He said the town “deserves what they get” regarding the settlement.

Kolarik said he does not think anyone will feel threatened with Schuler back on town property, and he brushed off the idea that Schuler’s gun comments indicated a lack of civility in Shirley’s town government.

“Our meetings were always very civil,” Kolarik said. “I’m a person who believes in letting people speak in meetings. If they need to vent, let them vent.

“But meetings were never out of control. People always got to say what they needed to say. And if it ever looked like a meeting was about to get out of control, I got it under control.”

Although the town did not acknowledge any wrongdoing, Rótolo said the settlement was akin to an admission that the law was on Schuler’s side.

“They did pay the money, and they did lift the order, so we’re considering it an implicit understanding that the town was in the wrong,” she said.

Simms, the town attorney, disputed the idea that a settlement means selectmen acted improperly.

Schuler’s comments at the meeting were “perhaps not wise,” Rótolo conceded, but she said they were protected by the First Amendment.

“There was no threat here,” she said. “Nobody took it as a threat, and you can see that clearly from the video [of the meeting]. The town of Shirley just overreacted.”

Calvin Hennick can be reached at calvinhennick@yahoo.com.

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