Open Government Issues The ACLU of Rhode Island is Involved With - Court Cases, Legislation, News Releases

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Open Government

The ACLU of Rhode Island works daily to improve citizens' access to public records and meetings through litigation, public education and advocacy.  

Why is open government important?

  • Openness in government is a linchpin of democracy, ensuring that the voters have the information they need to choose their leaders and then evaluate their performance in office.
  • Public access to information is an essential tool in the fight against corruption in government.
  • Public access to information can save taxpayer dollars and expose poor government practices.

The public has the right to know what its government is doing. After all, isn't our government supposed to be "of the people, by the people, and for the people”?

One of the most vital aspects of an open government is public access to government records.  Accessing Public Records in Rhode Island includes an explanation of the APRA request process and gives you tips on requesting public records.

Open Government in the News

  • Apr, 12, 2017: ACLU of Rhode Island Files Lawsuit Demanding Documents on Implementation of Trump Muslim Ban
  • Apr, 12, 2017: ACLU of RI Files Brief in Support of Release of 38 Studios Grand Jury Records
  • Jan, 27, 2017: ACLU Report Examines Voting Problems in November Election

View All Open Government Related News Releases »

Open Government Related Court Cases

2015: Eil v. DEA
Category: Active Case    Open Government    

This Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit is on behalf of local journalist, Philip Eil, who has been stymied for more than three years in his effort to obtain access to thousands of pages of public evidence from a major prescription drug-dealing trial. The lawsuit, against the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), seeks a court order to release the documents, a declaration that the DEA has wrongfully withheld and redacted documents, and an award of attorney fees.

The DEA still has not completely fulfilled the request, despite numerous efforts by Eil to expedite a response. Pending with the DEA for more than 800 days, Eil’s request is seven months older than what the federal government-operated website, FOIA.gov, reports as the agency’s longest pending request. In addition to the time it has taken to process the request, the DEA has withheld 87 percent of the 12,724 pages it has thus far processed for Eil’s FOIA request, and stripped most of the substantive information from the remaining 1,600 pages it has “released.”

During Sunshine Week 2016, the ACLU filed a motion for summary judgmentasking a federal court to order the DEA to release the documents. In the motion  the ACLU called for the release of  “the wrongfully withheld documents post haste.”

Oral arguments on this case were presented August 3, 2016. On September 16, 2016, Judge McConnell ruled in Eil's favor and ordered the documents released.

ACLU volunteer attorneys: Neal McNamara and Jessica Jewell from the law firm of Nixon Peabody.

Supporting Documents
2014: Olneyville Neighborhood Association v. RI Department of Corrections, RI State Police
Category: Active Case    Immigration    Open Government    

This open records lawsuit seeks a court order waiving the significant fees the RI Department of Corrections and the RI State Police want to charge the Olneyville Neighborhood Association before turning over records relating to the state's cooperation with federal immingration officials. ONA filed open records requests with these agencies seeking information regarding enforcement of so-called Immigration and Customs Enforcement "holds" that facilitate the transfer of detainees from law enforcement to ICE custody in order to compile a report to be shared with the public. The Department of Corrections sought an estimated $593 for retrieving and copying the records, and the State Police demanded a pre-payment of $1,500 before searching for the documents. 

The open records law authorizes courts to waive fees when the information requested "is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government," and this suit argues that ONA's request meets that standard. 

Supporting Documents

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Open Government Related Legislation

Administrative Procedures Act (H 5339)
Category: 2017    Open Government    

Currently, the state Board of Elections is virtually the only major state agency exempt from the Administrative Procedures Act, which requires state agencies to adopt rules and regulations through an open, public process. As a result, the Board can modify how elections take place in Rhode Island without having to inform the public or accept public input. In February, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in support of legislation sponsored by Representative Carlos Tobon (H 5339) to eliminate this exemption.

38 Studios Public Records (H 5347)
Category: 2017    Open Government    

This legislation would make public any records generated or obtained by the Rhode Island state police or Attorney General in their investigation of the 38 Studios scandal. The ACLU assisted sponsor Rep. Charlene Lima in drafting the legislation, and the House has approved the measure. Citing the strong public interest in their release, the ACLU and other open government groups have been calling for disclosure of the documents since last year. In April, the ACLU filed a friend of the court brief in support of the release of the grand jury records in the investigation.

Access to Public Records (S 68)
Category: 2017    Open Government    

The Access to Public Records Act is a critical law, essential to promoting open government and an informed citizenry. Despite updates to the law in 2012, an audit by the ACLU and other groups concerned with transparency in government found the law’s enforcement policies insufficient to ensure compliance from dozens of agencies. The ACLU testified before the Senate Judiciary committee this year in support of legislation sponsored by Senator Stephen Archambault (S 68) to make it easier for the public to obtain documents of public concern. Among other provisions, the legislation limits when documents such as arrest reports and correspondence by elected officials could be exempt from release, requires public bodies to specifically note the reasons for withholding any document and to prominently feature their public records policies on their websites, and allows courts to impose stronger penalties on those agencies that improperly withhold documents.