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Governor’s Ill-Conceived Bill Prompts Legislation to Repeal Anti-Free Speech Statutes

Posted: March 01, 2004|Category: Free Speech Category: Right to Petition & Protest

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In response to Governor Carcieri’s recent unsuccessful attempt, as part of a “homeland security” bill, to resurrect World War I statutes banning such things as advocacy of anarchy, the ACLU today announced that legislation is being introduced by Rep. Fausto Anguilla to repeal more than a dozen archaic and unconstitutional, but still active, state laws that infringe upon free speech.

Among other provisions, the proposed bill seeks to repeal a law banning the public display of any flag “opposed to organized government or which may be derogatory to morals,” a statute making it a felony to speak or write anything intended to “incite, provoke or encourage” a “defiance or disregard” of the law, and laws authorizing the use of lethal force to break up “tumultuous” assemblies and the use of military force to break up any meeting at which anarchy is “advocated, taught or discussed.”

Many of the laws date back to the 19th Century, and the most recent one addressed in the repeal bill was enacted in 1919. To the best of the ACLU’s knowledge, none of these statutes has been enforced in modern history, and there are no reported court decisions interpreting or applying any of these statutes since 1896. Most critical is that, by contemporary standards, all of these statutes are patently unconstitutional in infringing upon fundamental First Amendment freedoms.

Rep. Anguilla said: “The Governor’s recent bill led to serious reflection by constitutional scholars on the validity of a number of archaic statutes. What has been found are statutes that fail to meet contemporary constitutional standards and that have not been enforced in modern times. It is important that our General Laws embody the bedrock principle of American democracy as set forth in the First Amendment, protecting our freedoms of speech, assembly, and the press.”

R.I. ACLU executive director Steven Brown added: “The Governor’s attempt to resurrect two World War I-era statutes made clear that it is a mistake to assume that archaic laws with important constitutional ramifications can be left in the General Laws without worry. To the contrary, the attempted revival of these moribund statutes only demonstrated the fragility of freedom of speech in times of fear or crisis. As a result, our attorneys reviewed the state’s criminal statutes and found sixteen laws, like the ‘advocacy of anarchy’ statutes revived by the Governor, that have long outlived their ability to withstand constitutional scrutiny. They are archaic remnants of an era when a person could constitutionally be sent to jail merely for urging people to oppose the draft. Passage of this bill will be a worthwhile legacy to the Governor’s ill-conceived legislation.” A copy of the ACLU’s analysis of the laws is available by clicking here.

After the outpouring of criticism that ensued when his bill was made public, the Governor quickly withdrew his “anti-terrorism” legislation, and further indicated he would support repeal of “inappropriate” laws.

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