Manchester, NH -- A Webster, NH, couple who pursued town government wrongdoing is being recognized as this year's Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications' First Amendment Award honorees. Tara Gunnigle and Jon Pearson will be saluted by the communications school on Tuesday, November 9, with U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, as featured speaker.
The annual event honors New Hampshire individuals or groups that have advanced or exercised their First Amendment rights in some special or extraordinary way. Presenting sponsor is People’s United Bank. For the first time, the Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College will host the event.
Gunnigle and Pearson are among a handful of regular attendees at select board meetings in the small town of Webster, situated northwest of Concord. Gunnigle is originally from Long Island. The Pearson family has been a part of Webster for generations. Their ears perked up last year, they say, when at a board meeting the topic was raised of potential gravel use from two town-owned parcels near Walker Pond. That's when town treasurer Bruce Johnson said that wouldn't happen because he had purchased the land from the town.
This was news to Gunnigle and Pearson. They filed Right to Know requests but were told files on the matter were either sealed, missing, or did not exist. But they kept digging, seeking out revenue and tax records and property deeds and sealed minutes, which the select board agreed to open. They eventually amassed and presented to Webster's police chief and the Merrimack County attorney nearly 100 pages of information. Town Treasurer Johnson was charged and this year pleaded no contest in Franklin District Court to two counts of violating the “public officials barred from certain private dealings” law for purchasing the two lots from the town while he was treasurer. He was fined $1,200.
Johnson, who lives across the road from the property, resigned as town treasurer. He and other town officials maintained that the purchase had been in the public interest because of his commitment to preserve the property and that taxes would be paid on it. He paid $7,000 for the two one and one-half acre lots, which were assessed at a combined value of $44,000 in 2019.
In nominating Pearson and Gunnigle for the First Amendment honor, Concord Monitor editor Jonathan Van Fleet noted that the two aren't lawyers or journalists, writing "She's a postal worker and owns a horse farm with her husband...". The couple said they were shocked and humbled to be named recipients of the First Amendment honor. It gives them, they said, "another reason to keep pushing forward for the Constitution of the U.S. and the State of New Hampshire, so that all people are represented equally in all ways."
The Loeb School’s First Amendment Award judges are Rod Doherty, former executive editor of Foster’s Daily Democrat, Retired N.H. Supreme Court Justice Richard Galway, Attorney Gregory Sullivan of Malloy & Sullivan, LPC., and previous First Amendment recipient Mary DeWinkeleer.
Past recipients of the Award include former state Attorney General Philip McLaughlin, former Keene Sentinel Executive Editor Thomas Kearney, The Laconia Citizen, former legislator Daniel Hughes, former Dover City Councilor David Scott, Londonderry High School Journalism Adviser Mary Lucas DeWinkeleer, First Amendment attorney William Chapman, ConVal School Board member Gail Pierson Cromwell, The Portsmouth Herald, David Lang and the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire, The Telegraph of Nashua, slain journalist James Foley, former Portsmouth Police officer John Connors, Timberlane Regional School Board member Donna Green, open government activist David Saad and the citizens’ group Right to Know New Hampshire, columnist Robert Azzi, the late VA whistleblower Dr. Ed Kois, and Keene State College journalism professor Dr. Marianne Salcetti.
Led by Presenting Sponsor People's United Bank, the growing list of 2021 First Amendment Event sponsors includes Keynote Speaker Sponsor CCA Global Partners and The Brodsky Prize for Excellence in Student Journalism, and First Amendment Award Sponsor Eversource. Supporting Sponsors include Free Press, Free Speech, Free Classes Sponsor Brady Sullivan, Gift Sponsor AT&T, A/V Sponsor Bank of America, and Wellness Sponsor SolutionHealth. Friends of the Nackey S. Loeb School Sponsors are An America United, Bayberry Financial Services, The Common Man Family of Restaurants, Dumont Communications LLC, The McQuaid Family, Spectrum Marketing, Saint Anselm College’s Institute of Politics, and the Union Leader Corporation. Five Freedoms Sponsors are AARP-NH, Amoskeag Beverages, Anagnost Companies, Bellwether Community Credit Union, Juliana Bergeron, The Bernstein Shur Group, Business & Industry Association, Borislow Insurance, Catholic Medical Center, Cross Insurance, Douglas, Leonard & Garvey, P.C., Fidelity Investments, Jennifer Horn, Joyce and Daniel Levesque, The Laconia Sun, Louis Karno & Company Communications, Sean & Kirsten Mahoney, Mayflower Advisors, McLane Middleton, Merchant’s Fleet, Montagne Powers Communications, Mosaic Innovations, NBT Bank, New Hampshire Bulletin, Northeast Delta Dental, Sheehan Phinney, St. Mary’s Bank, Southern NH University, University of New Hampshire, Wash Street, Wieczorek Insurance and WIPFLI.
The non-profit, non-partisan Loeb School was founded in 1999 by Nackey Scripps Loeb, the late president and publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. Its mission is to promote understanding and appreciation of the First Amendment and to foster interest, integrity and excellence in journalism and communication. Loeb School classes and workshops attract students of all ages, from middle-schoolers to retirees. Instructors from media outlets and businesses around the state teach topics such as the First Amendment, journalism, photography, broadcasting, social media and public speaking.
For more information about the First Amendment Award, event and the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications, visit www.loebschool.org.