BELFAST, Maine — A Waldo County judge found a Belfast woman guilty of terrorizing city officials this week at the close of a two-day trial that tested the limits of free speech.
Laurie Allen, 58, defended herself Tuesday, arguing that the politically charged video she made and shared to YouTube in the fall of 2017 was simply a joke made at the expense of public officials, and should be protected under the First Amendment. The video featured her shooting a rifle and calling out several Belfast officials by name.
But after just a half hour of deliberation, Justice Robert Murray said he found Allen’s threats to be both credible and not protected under the law.
“Constitutional free speech is not unlimited,” he ruled. “There are in fact credible threats that can be made by an individual that are not constitutionally protected.”
Allen was sentenced to 18 months in prison for the Class C charge of terrorizing with a dangerous weapon. All but 14 days of the sentence will be suspended. She may be credited for time already served when she was initially arrested in February 2018. Allen also was sentenced to two years of probation, during which time she is not allowed to have contact with the seven local officials named in the video.
Allen also will not be allowed to possess or use dangerous weapons, and must undergo a mental health evaluation and treatment as part of the court’s mandate.
The state had asked that she also be denied access to the internet, but Murray did not agree to that condition.
Allen, who asked for her sentence to be temporarily stayed, was shocked at the verdict. She told the judge that if she had thought the video was illegal or that officials would take it as a threat, she would never have posted it.
“Where did America go?” she asked after leaving the courtroom.
Allen wrote a reaction on her personal blog where she often criticizes local officials.
A joke or a threat?
Allen, who has a yearslong history of conflict with city officials and others and who acted as her own attorney during the trial, did not take the witness stand. In her closing statement, she said she had never meant harm and that her lack of violent acts over the past eight years should show she is not a threat. She said she does not own a gun and had only fired a gun on that single occasion.
“[I made] a flippant remark, a joke, that I thought would remain private on my playlist,” she said of the video.
Over the course of the trial, the judge heard from each city official that was named: Councilors Mike Hurley, Eric Sanders, Mary Mortier and Neal Harkness; former Councilor John Arrison; City Manager Joe Slocum; and Director of Code & Planning Wayne Marshall. Each described how they became scared of Allen.
Mortier, the only witness to testify Tuesday, described an incident that took place five or so years ago, when she arrived early for a meeting at City Hall and found that Allen was parked outside the building. When Mortier got out of her car, she said Allen came up to her and started screaming and cursing, calling her a murderer and saying that the councilor had murdered her children.
“This was the beginning of the ramping up,” Mortier said.
In January 2018, the city councilor said she was standing near the bananas at a Hannaford grocery store when she was accosted again.
“Ms. Allen was nearby and saw me. She started yelling and cursing at the top of her lungs. She called me a murderer,” Mortier said. “As I moved to the bread aisle, she continued. I got out of the store as fast as I could, but you could hear her halfway through the store. That was the night I became very fearful of my safety.”
After that night, Mortier changed her behavior. She installed motion detector lights outside her home and won’t walk into City Hall alone. Then she saw the YouTube video.
“I was petrified,” Mortier said.
When Assistant District Attorney Bill Entwisle asked what she was afraid of, the councilor did not hesitate before responding.
“That I was going to be killed,” she said.
Verdict ‘a relief’
But Allen, in her closing statement, said that Mortier and the other witnesses had no evidence to back up their statements of fear. She also read out loud the entirety of an article published in 2010 in the online magazine Slate.com that described how the First Amendment protects the right to free expression, as long as there is not a genuine intent to commit or incite violence. In her eight years of fighting City Hall, she said she has never been violent.
“Is it legal to take aim at a representation of the president — and this also applies to public officials?” Allen said. “Absolutely.”
But Entwisle said in his closing statement that he believed the state’s evidence clearly established that Allen had made a threat to commit a crime dangerous to human life and placed people in reasonable fear they would be hurt. He said that by posting the target shooting video to a public platform, Allen was clearly communicating the threat.
“Each named individual took it as being very real,” he said. “This is Belfast, Maine. It’s real. It’s close. It’s not something that can be dismissed by just saying, ‘First Amendment.’”
Sanders said later Tuesday that the verdict came as a relief.
“I feel that the judge heard my concerns. Let’s hope Laurie does,” he said. “We’re all concerned about our safety.”