COVID-19 & Civil Liberties in RI
The ACLU of RI continues to watch closely to ensure that the government's response to the pandemic is scientifically justified and no more intrusive on civil liberties than absolutely necessary. Our response is motivated, in part, by the following principles:
- Government responses should be based on science & public health.
- Any response plan must protect the health, safety, and civil liberties of all.
- We need to pay particular attention to the most vulnerable people in our society, including people who are detained and incarcerated.
- Government transparency and the right to vote are fundamental to our democracy – especially in times of crisis.
Page last updated August 3, 2020. We will continue to update this page as the situation develops. See the sidebar to the right for more COVID-19-related actions we've taken.
Click a topic to scroll down to that section.
- INCARCERATED & DETAINED PEOPLE
- VOTING RIGHTS
- RIGHTS of PEOPLE with DISABILITIES
- DUE PROCESS & UI BENEFITS
- 4TH AMENDMENT RIGHTS
- STUDENTS' RIGHTS
- OPEN GOVERNMENT
- COURT CLOSURES
- THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY
Inmates and detainees – confined in very close quarters and without easy access to hygienic supplies – are among the most vulnerable populations to the spread of COVID-19. We have taken a number of actions to protect this vulnerable group including:
- More than half of the total ICE detainees at Wyatt have been conditionally released due to a class action lawsuit we filed.
- We wrote to officials at both the Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Wyatt Detention Center, calling on them to immediately develop evidence-based and proactive plans for the prevention and management of COVID-I9. That letter is here.
- We filed an APRA request with state officials for information about RI’s plans to address a likely, and potentially catastrophic, outbreak of COVID-19 at the ACI. Click here for more info on that.
- We wrote to the RI DOC requesting that officials start making public bi-weekly reports documenting COVID-19 cases, testing and other data. Wyatt had already been court ordered to do this. Click here for the letter we sent.
- In late July, our successful class action lawsuit led to the suspension of mail ballot witness/notary requirements for the September and November elections.
- Sixteen organizations called on the state to take immediate action to safeguard voters' health in the fall.
- Regarding the recent June 2 RI presidential primary, please reach out if you have experienced problems voting.
- The ACLU joined with 15 other organizations in submitting legislative testimony against a Board of Elections bill that would make it harder for people to vote by mail or emergency ballot in the upcoming elections. The bill sponsor pulled the legislation shortly before the hearing was scheduled to begin.
A large group of RI organizations, including the ACLU of RI, sent a letter to Governor Raimondo demanding that she issue a clear directive to prohibit discrimatory treatment of people with disabilities in accessing emergency and/or life saving medical treatment during the pandemic. The groups then sent a follow-up letter to the Department of Health.
On June 3, the DLT agreed to take interim action to address frozen UI benefits in response to our class-action lawsuit. The lawsuit challenged the RI Department of Labor and Training’s (DLT) actions in summarily freezing unemployment insurance payments to hundreds of Rhode Islanders without notice or explanation.
An Executive Order from Governor Raimondo gave police the power to stop cars with ANY out-of-state license plates coming into Rhode Island. Police exercise of this power raises extraordinarily serious constitutional concerns, and the ACLU called on the Governor to amend or repeal the EO in question. However, because - during the stops - the police do not ask for ID, disavow any attempt at law enforcement, and take no action against drivers who refuse to provide info, the ACLU has not taken legal action. We continue to closely monitor the situation. Our blog post providing more detail on our position, which was also published as an op-ed in the Providence Journal, can be found here.
- As schools moved to remote learning, we took action to ensure that students with disabilities, English Language Learners, and families without access to computers or the Internet received the education that they are entitled to by law. To this end, a dozen organizations called on the Commissioner of Education to post online on one site the remote instruction plans that districts had been ordered to submit. A major goal of the request was to make it easier for parents and advocates to review and compare plans and to ensure that remote learning does not exacerbate educational inequities.
- The ACLU of RI also conducted a review of school district tech privacy policies in the state, finding that many districts allow for widespread snooping on both students and families. The review found that many school district policies on this issue allow for remote access to school-loaned computers’ microphones and cameras, and third-party programs used for remote learning that are installed on both loaned devices and personal computers allow school officials to view weeks of browsing activity. The ACLU urged school districts to amend their practices and strengthen privacy rights for students.
- In response to concerns raised by the ACLU and other advocacy organizations, as well as attorneys specializing in special education law, Education Commissioner Infante-Green recently issued guidance to school districts ensuring that students with disabilities who have been disadvantaged by remote learning obtain necessary in-person instruction.
- We issued a statement regarding the Governor's announcement of a voluntary contact tracing app.
- In response to news reports that the Department of Health is sharing with law enforcement the addresses of people who have COVID-19, we sent a letter expressing grave concern and urging the DOH to cease this information-sharing. That letter is here.
- In March, Governor Raimondo issued an executive order suspending certain provisions of both the Open Meetings Act and the Access to Public Records Act. While the ACLU recognizes that some relaxation of these laws was appropriate in light of social distancing requirements, the scope and breadth of the order were deeply concerning. In response to an ACLU and Common Cause of RI letter calling on the Governor to revise the order, her office has since issued additional guidance to state agencies and municipalities that incorporates almost all of the recommendations proposed. As a follow up, the ACLU sent a letter to municipal leaders in RI urging them to ensure public bodies under their jurisditions abide by the new standards for transparency.
- When the EO suspending provisions of the APRA failed to expire after more than two months, seven open government organizations sent the Governor a letter calling on her to repeal the order in the interest of the public's right to know. As a result, all provisions of the EO, except for one that allows the Department of Health extra time, have now expired and not been renewed.
The ACLU continues to monitor the state's actions in quarantining individuals and in RI's technological approach to contact tracing. In April, we wrote the state on behalf of one couple with homes in both RI and NY who travel back and forth every few weeks for chemotherapy treatments, and who face quarantine every time they return to Rhode Island. The letter raises concerns about the lack of due process procedures to challenge a quarantine order as well as the state's failure to have the infrastructure in place to ensure that people quarantined have access to food and other necessities.
The courts are currently open to hear pleas from arrestees and pre-trial detainees to reduce their bail, and they continue to hold judicial bypass hearings for minors seeking abortions. Certain non-emergency court matters have also resumed. For specific information, visit the RI Judiciary website.
For information on the limited number of current civil liberties bills under consideration - and to read our testimony on them, visit our 2020 legislation page. Regarding the public's ability to be heard on current legislation, we recently sent a letter to President Ruggerio and Speaker Mattiello. For complete and up-to-date info on all legislative matters, visit the RI General Assembly website.