The ACLU of Rhode Island and Free Speech / Freedom from Censorship

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The ACLU of Rhode Island and Freedom from Censorship/Freedom of Speech

Censorship comes in many forms, but it is an evil which the ACLU has vigorously fought to oppose since its founding. Below are some of the First Amendment censorship and free speech cases in which the ACLU of Rhode Island has been involved over the years:

2015: Monteiro V. City of Cranston

Category: Free Speech  

The ACLU of Rhode Island today has federal lawsuit on behalf of a disabled person summoned to court and threatened with arrest for holding a handwritten sign seeking donations as he stood on the median of a Cranston roadway. The suit, against the City of Cranston, argues that a city ordinance barring the solicitation of donations from motorists violates free speech rights. In addition to being unconstitutional, ordinances like these are selectively enforced against, and further criminalize, the poor and homeless.

The ACLU expects this lawsuit to be the first of a series of suits addressing municipal ordinances that criminalize poverty and homelessness.
 

Learn more about this case >

2015: Pombo v. City of Providence

Category: Active Case  Free Speech  

1/6/16 BREAKING: The ACLU of Rhode Island settled this First Amendment lawsuit today. As a result of the settlement, the City of Providence can no longer order Pombo to stop performing on public property or require him to obtain a permit to perform on public property absent violation of any other valid ordinances. The settlement agreement further stipulates that “because soliciting donations is protected speech under the First Amendment,” the City cannot stop Pombo from soliciting or accepting donations for his performances. The City also agreed to pay compensatory damages.


This lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court by ACLU/RI volunteer attorneys Shannah Kurland and John W. Dineen, is on behalf of Manuel Pombo, a 62-year-old local street musician (or “busker”) who has been arrested once, and threatened with arrest on numerous other occasions, for playing his saxophone on sidewalks and street corners in Providence. The license not only prohibits him from soliciting donations for his performances, it allows him to perform solely at the unbridled discretion of police officers. This is the third time in five years the ACLU of Rhode Island has sued the City of Providence for interfering with the exercise of free speech rights on the City’s streets and sidewalks. 

When the suit was filed Mr. Pombo said: "I love to play the saxophone and I know that it has brought joy to many people. But I now live in constant fear of being arrested for playing my music, and it takes a physical toll on me.  This is not the way a city that claims to be arts-friendly should treat anybody.”

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2014: Kurland v. City of Providence

Category: Active Case  Free Speech  Right to Petition & Protest  

The ACLU of Rhode Island has filed a federal lawsuit against the Providence Police Department for violating the "clearly established" free speech rights of two protesters last year at a fundraiser in Roger Williams Park for then-Gubernatorial candidate, and now Governor-elect, Gina Raimondo. The suit alleges that the police department's actions amounted to a "willful" violation of the "constitutionally protected right of people to peaceably assemble and demonstrate in public parks," and seeks various court imposted remedies, including monetary damages. The suit notes that only six months earlier in another ACLU case, a federal judge condemned the Providence police department's practice of "clearing vast public spaces" of people engaged in free speech activity without legal cause.

Make sure you know your rights to protest and demonstrate by reading our pamphlet

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2014: Blakeslee v. St. Sauveur

Category: Free Speech  

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 7, 2014: U.S. District Court Judge William Smith has struck down the state law that makes it a crime to circulate anonymous political literature, including unsigned newspaper editorials. The ACLU of Rhode Island sued over the legality of the statute earlier this year to halt the Town of Smithfield’s stated plans to enforce it. The statute, which carries a potential one-year prison sentence, bars the distribution of any anonymous political literature that relates to ballot questions or that criticizes a political candidate’s “personal character or political action.”

In a four-page decision, Judge Smith called it “hard to imagine what the Rhode Island General Assembly was thinking when it passed this law . . . [but it] must be invalidated as a violation of the First Amendment.”

The ACLU of Rhode Island filed the federal lawsuit to prevent the Smithfield Police Department from continuing to enforce a broadly written state law that makes it a crime to circulate anonymous political literature, including unsigned newspaper editorials. The statute, which carries a potential one-year prison sentence, bars the distribution of any anonymous political literature that relates to ballot questions or that criticizes a political candidate’s “personal character or political action.”

In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled an almost identical Ohio statute unconstitutional, calling anonymous pamphleteering “an honorable tradition of advocacy and of dissent” designed to “protect unpopular individuals from retaliation - and their ideas from suppression - at the hand of an intolerant society.” That decision cited a long history of anonymous political literature in this country, including the Federalist Papers.

Despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the Rhode Island law has never been formally repealed, and last year the Smithfield Police Department arrested a political consultant for purportedly violating it. As a result of the court decision, the defendants will pay $4,000 in attorneys’ fees in response to the successful challenge to the statute.

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2013: R.I. ACLU v. Begin

Category: Free Speech  

Successful federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of various aspects of the state’s campaign finance law restricting the rights of individuals to campaign on ballot referenda questions.

2012: Beacon Commications, Inc. and the Rhode Island Press Association v. Kilmartin

Category: Free Speech  Right to Petition & Protest  

A lawsuit challenging a state law that has been interpreted to bar the media from running advertisements containing the names and photographs of public officials without their permission. The lawsuit argues that the statute “has an impermissible and unconstitutional chilling effect on free speech and on the free exchange of ideas” in violation of the First Amendment.

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2010: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society v. Segardia de Jesus

Category: Free Speech  Religious Freedom  

The Affiliate joined in a “friend of the court” brief, filed with the National ACLU and other New England affiliates, in support of a challenge by Jehovah’s Witnesses to a Puerto Rico law that gave certain neighborhoods the right to close themselves off from political and religious canvassers.

2010: Reilly v. City of Providence

Category: Free Speech  Right to Petition & Protest  

This was a successful federal lawsuit charging Providence police with violating the free speech rights of a local resident who was threatened with arrest for leafleting on a public sidewalk.  The Rhode Island ACLU asked a federal court to rule that police engaged in a clear violation of the free speech rights of a local resident in 2010 when she was barred from peacefully leafleting on a public sidewalk in front of a building where then-Mayor David Cicilline was speaking.

Cooperating Attorney: Richard A. Sinapi

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2009: Martin v. Langlois

Category: Free Speech  

Successful representation of a person who was barred by a judge from posting on Facebook any information relating to a Family Court case involving her brother.

2008: Jones v. Town of West Warwick

Category: Free Speech  Right to Petition & Protest  

Federal lawsuit successfully challenging both a town ordinance that significantly limits the posting of political signs, and the town’s discriminatory enforcement of the ordinance against the plaintiff. Cooperating Attorney: Richard A. Sinapi

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2008: State v. Rhodes and Freitas

Category: Free Speech  Right to Petition & Protest  

Successful defense representation of two members of an advocacy group arrested for disorderly conduct for using a bullhorn at a demonstration in front of the State House.

2007: Driver v. Town of Richmond

Category: Free Speech  Right to Petition & Protest  Rights of Candidates  

Federal lawsuit challenging a town’s actions in repeatedly removing a political candidate’s signs from private property. The court ruled unconstitutional the statute under which the actions were purportedly taken, and the defendants thereafter agreed to an award of damages and attorneys’ fees.

Cooperating Attorney: Richard A. Sinapi

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2007: Spratt v. Wall

Category: Church and State  Criminal Justice  Free Speech  Religious Freedom  

Successful appeal of a federal court ruling upholding a warden’s decision to bar an inmate from supervised preaching at religious services even though he had done so for seven years without incident. The appeal argued that the ban violates a federal law guaranteeing religious freedom to institutionalized persons. The appellate court reversed the lower court ruling, and the state subsequently adopted a new policy in accordance with the federal law, and also agreed to pay damages and attorneys’ fees.

Cooperating Attorneys: Lynette Labinger, Carly Iafrate

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2006: Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) v. Town of East Greenwich

Category: Free Speech  Right to Petition & Protest  

Federal lawsuit challenging a town ordinance barring door-to-door solicitation after 7 PM and requiring licensing of all solicitors, including those for non-profit organizations. The court preliminarily upheld the restrictions. On appeal, the appellate court remanded the case for further hearings. The suit was thereafter voluntarily dismissed.

Cooperating Attorney: Carolyn A. Mannis

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2006: Bilodeau v. Daly-Labelle

Category: Free Speech  Right to Petition & Protest  

Successful representation of a resident sued for defamation by a political candidate for distributing a political flyer critical of the candidate.

2006: Women’s Studies Organization of RIC v. Rhode Island College

Category: Free Speech  Right to Petition & Protest  Students' Rights  Women's Rights  

Favorably settled lawsuit challenging a college’s censorship of a campus sign display sponsored by a student women’s rights group.

2004: Laffey v. Begin

Category: Free Speech  Rights of Candidates  

“Friend of the court” brief challenging a state Board of Elections’ ruling that the hosting of a radio talk show by Cranston’s Mayor constituted an illegal campaign contribution.

2004: Clavet v. Lincoln School Committee

Category: Free Speech  Right to Petition & Protest  

FREEDOM OF SPEECH. Federal lawsuit alleging that a school district failed to hire a applicant for two art teacher positions because of her public criticism over the years, as a parent, of some school district practices. After a bench trial, the court ruled for the defendants.

Cooperating Attorney: Jennifer Azevedo

2003: Young v. City of Providence

Category: Due Process  Free Speech  

“Friend of the court” brief challenging, on free speech and due process grounds, the imposition of sanctions on plaintiffs’ attorneys in the Cornel Young, Jr. civil rights case for allegedly misstating the judge’s position in court papers. The district court denied the ACLU permission to file the brief in 2003; the brief was filed in the appellate court in 2004, which overturned the sanctions in 2005.

Cooperating Attorney: Amy R. Tabor

2003: Carlow v. Mruk

Category: Free Speech  Right to Petition & Protest  

Federal lawsuit challenging a “gag order” issued by a Coventry fire district chief against two firefighters after they publicly expressed fire-department related concerns about school safety. The defendants agreed to rescind the challenged policies in 2004. Attorneys fees were awarded after a contempt motion was filed against defendants in 2005 for failing to abide by the agreement.

Cooperating Attorney: John W. Dineen

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2003: Alves v. Palazzo

Category: Free Speech  Right to Petition & Protest  

“Friend of the court” brief filed in this SLAPP suit appeal in support of a person who was sued by a state Senator for making critical comments about him in letters to the editor of the local paper.

2002: Arcouette v. Tiverton School Committee

Category: Free Speech  Right to Petition & Protest  

Federal lawsuit challenging a school committee policy barring members of the public from making “charges” or “complaints” against school employees during the public comment portion of committee meetings. The defendants agreed not to enforce the ban pending further court proceedings. In 2004 the defendants revised the policy and paid attorneys fees.

Cooperating Attorney: Jennifer Azevedo

2001: Multnomah County Public Library v. USA

Category: Free Speech  

Federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a federal law requiring libraries receiving federal funds to install blocking software on all their Internet access terminals.

2001: RI Brotherhood of Correctional Officers v. RI Airport Corporation

Category: Free Speech  

Favorably settled federal lawsuit challenging the airport’s censorship of an issue-oriented advertisement on the grounds that it was “political” and “negative.”

2001: Fishbach v. Zurier

Category: Free Speech  Right to Petition & Protest  

Successful lawsuit challenging a Providence School Board policy barring the public from mentioning the name of any person during the public comment portion of School Board meetings.

2000: Parent v. School Committee of the Town of Johnston

Category: Free Speech  Students' Rights  

Favorably settled federal lawsuit challenging the summary suspension of a high school student based solely on the content of a “free write” composition.

1998: Providence Firefighters Local #799 v. Partington

Category: Free Speech  

Successful federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a fire department order barring employees from speaking to the media without approval of the fire chief.

1998: Parker v. School Committee of the Town of Westerly

Category: Free Speech  Students' Rights  

Successful administrative challenge to the suspension of a high school student for wearing a rock band T-shirt with the numerals “666” on it.

1995: Cirelli v. Town of Johnston

Category: Free Speech  

Successful federal lawsuit challenging school officials’ refusal to allow a high school teacher to videotape safety violations at the school, or to release the videotapes to third parties without permission.

1992: Decristo v. R.I. Commission for Human Rights

Category: Discrimination  LGBT Rights  Free Speech  

Successful federal lawsuit on behalf of a person with HIV who was barred by statute from publicizing his complaint of discrimination while it was pending before the Human Rights Commission.

1990: Atlantic Beach Casino v. Morenzoni

Category: Free Speech  

Successful federal lawsuit on behalf of nightclub threatened with revocation of its entertainment license after booking the rap group “2 Live Crew.”

1990: Town of Barrington v. Lemoi

Category: Free Speech  Right to Petition & Protest  

Successful representation of a person fined $13,000 for displaying political signs in his house window, in violation of an ordinance barring such signs from residential property.

1989: Kass v. Newton

Category: Free Speech  

Successful federal suit challenging a state law barring persons from publicizing complaints against public officials filed with the Rhode Island Ethics Commission.

1988: Secretary of Labor v. General Dynamics

Category: Free Speech  

Challenge to an administrative gag order barring employees in a safety violations case from discussing the court proceedings in public; the court lifted the gag order.

1988: United States v. Providence Journal

Category: Free Speech  

Amicus brief in U.S. Supreme Court in support of newspaper’s right to have published an article in violation of a “prior restraint” order issued by a court.

1987: Fratiello v. Gorodetsky

Category: Free Speech  Police Practices  

Successful federal lawsuit, filed on behalf of two radicals, against Providence police for interfering with their free speech rights through harassment and bad faith arrests; the court struck down two ordinances under which the plaintiffs had been continually arrested.

1986: Irish Subcommittee of R.I. Heritage Commission v. R.I. Heritage Commission

Category: Free Speech  

Successful federal lawsuit against the banning of an Irish group from Heritage Day Festival because of the group’s political nature.

1983: Elmer v. Ricci

Category: Free Speech  Police Practices  

The Providence police department issued a formal written apology and paid damages to settle this suit on behalf of a protester who had been arrested while peacefully leafleting outside a building where Henry Kissinger was speaking.

1981: The Independent Press v. Brunelle

Category: Free Speech  

Successful federal court challenge to Chariho School Committee decision prohibiting a student from distributing and selling an alternative school paper on school premises.

1980: Lancellotta v. West Warwick

Category: Free Speech  Voting Rights  

The first of a half-dozen successful Affiliate court challenges to town ordinances banning the posting of election signs in residential areas.

1978: Wisner v. Ricci

Category: Free Speech  

Successful federal court suit permitting the display of an art exhibit that had been raided by Providence police.

1975: Driver v. Helms

Category: Free Speech  

Class action suit against various officials of the CIA, FBI and Post Office for opening of first-class mail to foreign countries without a court-authorized warrant.