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Citing Chilling Effect on Free Speech, ACLU Calls on Attorney General to Stop Facebook Investigation

Posted: February 07, 2014|Category: Free Speech

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The ACLU of Rhode Island has sent a letter to Attorney General Peter Kilmartin urging him to close any criminal investigation into a Facebook page satirizing Rep. Scott Guthrie — a page the ACLU says is a clear exercise of free speech.

According to news and police reports, the Assistant Attorney General who investigated Rep. Guthrie’s complaint last month concluded – correctly, in the ACLU’s view – that the Facebook page did not constitute criminal “harassment” under the law, and “determined that there is insufficient evidence to go forward with charges at this time.” Despite this conclusion, the Attorney General’s office has been quoted as calling this determination only an “initial assessment,” and indicated that the AG was still reviewing the matter for possible criminal prosecution.

In the letter to the Attorney General, ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown said that the continued criminal investigation into this political satire “can only cast a pall over the exercise of First Amendment rights and the lawful ability of members of the public to criticize or caricature public officials.”

“While it may be discourteous and even offensive, the Facebook page is not by any stretch of the imagination a criminal enterprise,” the letter continued. “Satirizing public officials, however coarsely, constitutes a well-worn application of free speech rights.”

The ACLU noted that public officials are satirized online, and on televisions and newsstands every day, and that the courts have set a very high standard for public officials to pursue even civil actions against political criticism.

Given the First Amendment implications of a criminal investigation into any protected political speech, the ACLU said any need for additional review of this case should be categorically rejected, and called on the AG to immediately close the case.

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