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Free speech rights: Frequent Amherst protester involved in fight

  • Amherst Regional High School students turn to look at Trump supporter Phil O’Connell, holding sign in background, during a walkout last year. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO



Staff Writer
Sunday, September 10, 2017

AMHERST — Holding signs with words criticizing the media, blasting feminism and slamming Hillary Clinton, Phil O’Connell has been a frequent presence on the sidewalks of downtown Amherst.

Even though his political views may differ from many of those living and studying in the college town, O’Connell has First Amendment rights to free speech, Police Chief Scott Livingstone said.

Even so, Amherst Police continue to field complaints about what people view as offensive phrases on his hand-made signs.

“People call us daily because they don’t like what his signs say,” Livingstone said.

But on the afternoon of Aug. 24, O’Connell’s visibility in front of the Bank of America at 1 South Pleasant St. prompted a response from police officers and paramedics after he was involved in a fight. Medical attention was provided and police said those involved in the fight could face charges of disorderly conduct. 

For public safety officials in Amherst, the altercation was an isolated incident and not an indication that Amherst will be seeing the types of violence that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists and counterprotesters clashed. Attempts to reach O’Connell in the days following the incident were unsuccessful. 

“We’re good with protests and making sure everyone is able to legally voice their opinions,” Livingstone said.

Fire Chief Tim Nelson said he, too, isn’t worried that violence that has occurred elsewhere at rallies will appear in Amherst.

“I don’t see us responding to a lot of these incidents,” Nelson said.

In fact, Nelson said people in Amherst are accustomed to seeing a wide range of views, and Amherst and its college campuses have already been the scenes of several peaceful protests since President Donald Trump’s election.

Nevertheless, at a community breakfast last week sponsored by the University of Massachusetts and Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said that campuses across the country likely will experience increased activity by hate groups during the coming academic year.

“With you, our friends, neighbors and partners in our community, we will reject hatred in all its forms and will stand united in defense of these values,” Subbaswamy told a crowd at the breakfast. 

O’Connell has been advised that he should stay on the sidewalk and not be confrontational with pedestrians and drivers.

“The signs he’s holding are not against the law and he’s typically not the antagonizer,” Livingstone said.

In fact, O’Connell was assaulted on the afternoon of Nov. 19, 2016, when two people took offense at a political sign he was displaying on a downtown street.

A 23-year-old Newton man and a 23-year-old Goshen woman allegedly accosted him, with the male suspect allegedly jumping on O’Connell’s back, knocking him to the ground and attempting to grab the sign and tear it up.

The man was charged with assault and battery and the woman was charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, a shod foot.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com