January/February 2009 - an ACLU of Rhode Island Newsletter

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January/February 2009 Newsletter

Volume: XV, Issue Number: 1

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Newsletter Contents

Rhode Island ACLU Files Lawsuit on Behalf of 
Family of Wyatt Center Detainee Who Died in Custody; Suit Alleges Hiu Lui Ng Was Subjected to “Cruel, Inhumane, Malicious and Sadistic Behavior” 

The Rhode Island ACLU has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the family of Hiu Lui (“Jason”) Ng, a 34-year-old Chinese detainee who died last August while in the custody of immigration officials at the Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls.  The 46-page lawsuit, filed by RI ACLU cooperating attorney Jack McConnell of the law firm of Motley Rice LLC., documents what it calls “cruel, inhumane, malicious and sadistic behavior” against Ng, and alleges that more than two dozen defendants, including officials and employees of both the Wyatt facility and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), violated his constitutional rights in myriad ways.

Despite complaining for months to prison officials about being in excruciating pain, Ng was first diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and a broken spine less than a week before he died. Until that time, guards and medical personnel at Wyatt continually accused Ng of faking his illness. He was routinely denied use of a wheelchair despite his inability to walk, including when his attorney, who had traveled from New York, sought to visit him. Only a week before Ng died, immigration officials forced him to travel to Hartford, Connecticut for no legitimate reason, where he was urged to drop his appeals. To get him to Hartford, guards forcibly dragged Ng out of his cell, shackled his hands, feet and waist, and dragged him into a transport van, despite his screaming in pain. The cruel treatment he received at that time was captured, in part, on videotape.

In 1992, at the age of 17, Ng, along with his parents and sister, lawfully entered the United States on a visa. In 2001, he married Lin Li Qu, then a permanent legal resident and now a U.S. citizen. At about the same time, INS issued a notice for Ng to appear at a hearing on his immigration status, but the notice was erroneously sent to a non-existent address and Ng never received it. A few months later, an immigration judge ordered Ng’s removal, in his absence and without his knowledge. In the meantime, Ng’s wife filed a petition to have Ng’s legal status adjusted. It was at an interview they attended on July 19, 2007 to discuss that status review that immigration officials arrested and detained Ng on the basis of the faulty 2001 immigration order. Between that time and his death a little more than a year later, Ng was transferred back and forth between at least three different ICE detention facilities.

Ng is survived by his wife and two sons, Raymond and Johnny, ages four and two, on whose behalf the suit has been brought. Among the fourteen causes of action in the complaint are ones alleging excessive force and brutality, constitutionally inadequate medical care, denial of counsel and violations of anti-discrimination laws on the basis of disability.

The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages against the defendants for, among other things, wrongful death, physical pain and suffering, mental anguish and emotional distress.

Last month, ICE issued a detailed and scathing report charging Wyatt with, among other things, providing Ng inadequate medical care, using excessive force, and improperly denying him access to counsel. As a result, ICE has pulled all of the agency’s detainees out of Wyatt. However, the report did not examine or address any of ICE’s own actions in the matter.

In addition to filing the suit, the RI ACLU has sought an emergency court order to halt ICE’s imminent planned deportation of a material witness in the case, Roger Gracias Lozano. Gracias Lozano, who is scheduled to be deported to El Salvador, was Ng’s cellmate at Wyatt during much of Ng’s time at the facility. According to the RI ACLU’s motion, Gracias Lozano was “a witness to many of the assaults and deprivations against” Ng, and “provided constant assistance and care for Mr. Ng during the time leading up to his death.” In addition to halting Gracias Lozano’s deportation, the emergency request seeks his release from detention by ICE under reasonable conditions of supervision. That request will be heard by a judge at the end of February.

Ng’s family issued the following statement on the day the lawsuit was filed: “Hiu Lui Ng was tortured, brutalized, and deprived of the dignity every human being deserves by officials at the Wyatt Detention Center. He was denied adequate medical care by the officials at the Franklin County Jail. His rights to liberty and due process were denied him by officials of the federal government and the Immigration and Custom Enforcement agency. In filing this lawsuit, we seek justice for Hiu Lui. We hope that our actions today will hold the parties responsible for what they did to him so that no family, regardless of their immigration status, will have to go through the torture and indignities that Hiu Lui was put through.”  

RI ACLU volunteer attorney Jack McConnell added: “While Mr. Ng was in detention, not only were his serious medical needs and excruciating pain ignored and ridiculed, but Wyatt staff also subjected him to physical abuse that was nothing less than torture. Mrs. Ng is pursuing this case in the hope that her actions will help prevent anybody else in ICE custody from suffering Hiu Lui’s fate, and keep other families from having to experience the grief that she and her family have had to endure.”

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Suit Filed Over Restrictive State Ballot Access Law

The Rhode Island ACLU has filed a federal lawsuit against Rhode Island elections officials on behalf of the Moderate Party of Rhode Island (MPRI), challenging the state’s restrictive ballot access laws. Party of Rhode Island (MPRI), challenging the state’s restrictive ballot access laws. The lawsuit, filed by RI ACLU volunteer attorney Mark W. Freel, argues that the laws violate the First Amendment rights of fledgling groups like MPRI by impeding their ability to gain formal recognition as a political party.

At issue is a statute that bars any new political party from collecting in an off-election year the signatures necessary to gain state recognition as a party. Instead, the party must wait until the beginning of the election year to do so. This provision prevents MPRI from raising money and organizing in 2009, while allowing the two major political parties to organize and raise funds at will. The statute also requires a new political party to collect signatures representing 5% of the voter turnout for the 2008 elections (over 23,000 certified signatures of registered voters) in order to gain recognition as a party. Most states have far lower signature thresholds for party recognition.

The lawsuit argues that “having to collect the required number of signatures in the limited time window permitted by law, and not being able to commence that process until January 1, 2010, creates an arbitrary, unjustifiable and ultimately impermissible burden that makes the task far more difficult to accomplish.” The suit notes that MPRI officials “are ready, willing, and able to commence collecting the necessary signatures for recognition now, but are currently forced to wait” until 2010. As a result, they are “unjustly forced to compete in the political arena at a distinct political and financial disadvantage, when compared to previously recognized political parties.” The suit argues that these burdensome restrictions violate MPRI’s First Amendment rights. “

Existing state law sets up any new political party for a perpetual cycle of failure,” said Ken Block, Chairman of MPRI. “The new party cannot raise money until state recognition is granted, which cannot commence until January 2010 and is unlikely to be finished for months. Imagine trying to run successful campaigns starting with a bank balance of zero in June of the year of the election!” RI ACLU volunteer attorney Freel added: “Preventing a new and fledgling third political party like the Moderate Party from being able to move forward with the collection of thousands of signatures until January 1 of an election year makes no sense and places them at a tremendous disadvantage. The Moderate Party is ready to start its work now, and should have the ability to do so.” A trial in the case is expected to take place in March.

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ACLU Appeals Dismissal of 
“Racial Profiling” Lawsuit Against State Police

The Rhode Island ACLU has appealed a ruling in a federal lawsuit filed against the R.I. State Police, challenging the legality of the detention and transporting to immigration officials of fourteen people, all Guatemalans, who were stopped in a van on I-95 after the driver changed lanes without using a turn signal. The lawsuit, filed by RI ACLU volunteer attorney V. Edward Formisano on behalf of eleven of the passengers, argues that the actions by the state police violated the state’s Racial Profiling Prevention Act, as well as the driver and passengers’ constitutional rights to be free from discrimination and from unreasonable searches and seizures. However, in December, U.S. District Judge Mary Lisi ruled the officers’ conduct lawful.

The suit noted that the detention ensued even though Thomas Chabot, the state trooper who stopped the van, confirmed that the license and registration of driver Carlos Tamup were valid, and that Tamup had no criminal record. Utilizing Tamup as a translator, Chabot nonetheless asked all the passengers to also provide ID. When some were unable to do so, Chabot asked if they possessed any documents demonstrating their U.S. citizenship. After further delays, the trooper advised them that they would all be escorted to the Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Providence. According to the complaint, Chabot advised Tamup that any passenger attempting to escape from the van en route to Providence would be shot.

RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown called “particularly startling” the judge’s ruling that the trooper did not violate the state’s racial profiling law, which bars the continued detention of vehicles during traffic stops unless there is “reasonable suspicion or probable cause of criminal activity.” The ruling does not explain what criminal activity the trooper suspected, since mere presence in the country illegally is not a crime.

The van stop generated significant controversy in the civil rights community. More than a dozen organizations sharply criticized then-State Police Superintendent Steven Pare’s support of the trooper’s actions, which came less than a month after a state police representative misleadingly told a community forum that the State Police did not seek to enforce immigration laws. The groups further claimed that the traffic stop had created a “chill” in the Latino community, with residents fearful of contacting the police to report crimes lest their own immigration status be investigated.

Brown called the detention “a classic case of racial profiling. The driver’s papers were in perfect order, so the continued interrogation of the passengers was clearly based solely on their ethnicity.” He said the decision pointed to the continued need for strengthening the state’s racial profiling law, which police departments have resisted. A series of reports issued by Northeastern University and the RI ACLU have documented extensively how racial minorities in Rhode Island are much more likely than whites to be stopped and searched by police, even though they are less likely to be found with contraband. No hearing date on the appeal has been set.

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Secret Court Proceedings On The Horizon

A 25-year-old state law that could be formally implemented within the next month significantly undermines the principle that court proceedings should be open to the public, the RI ACLU testified at a court hearing in January.

The hearing took place before the R.I. Supreme Court on proposed rules to implement the “Retired Justice Trial Act,” a two-sentence statute first enacted in 1984 that allows litigants to hire retired judges to hear publicly-filed court cases in secret. The ACLU is unaware whether the statute has ever been used since its adoption a quarter of a century ago. ACLU volunteer attorney Carolyn Mannis testified at the hearing, supplementing detailed written testimony submitted by the Affiliate.

In that testimony, the ACLU called the privatization of the judicial system “extremely disturbing on many levels. Among the most troubling are its creation of a two-tiered system of justice that allows for swift resolution of cases only for those wealthy enough to afford it, and its direct impact on the fundamental right of the public to monitor court proceedings.”

The statute establishes a judicial process that is, by definition, secret. The ACLU emphasized that people who wish to conduct legal business in private already have the means to do so, through private arbitration and mediation proceedings. The “retired justice program,” however, has all the earmarks of regular court cases conducted under the auspices of the judicial branch, with one glaring difference – the proceedings are kept hidden from the public. “Closed-door justice is, and should be, anathema to our judicial system, which has long been guided by fundamental principles of transparency,” said the ACLU. In theory, the ACLU noted, a judge presiding over a “private” court case could issue a ruling on the constitutionality of a state law.

The ACLU argued that if the Court nonetheless proceeds with implementing the statute, it should adopt rules that limit secrecy to the greatest extent possible, including by prohibiting judges in these cases from imposing “gag orders” on witnesses, and requiring that any judgments entered in private cases be made public. The ACLU also urged that the rules make explicit that all records contained in the public file remain public despite the case’s transfer to a “private” judge.

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ACLU Criticizes Barrington School Breathalyzer Proposal

The RI ACLU has sharply criticized a proposal from Barrington police chief John LaCross to require all students attending high school dances to take a breathalyzer test.

In a letter sent to school officials, the ACLU acknowledged the pressures on school officials to address the serious problem of underage drinking in Barrington, but called the proposal “ineffectual and inappropriately dismissive of students’ legitimate rights.”

The letter supported the school’s current policy, allowing breathalyzer testing upon reasonable suspicion that a particular student is impaired. “Rather than treating every student as a suspect,” the letter said, “the current policy recognizes that the privacy rights of students should not be so cavalierly ignored, and that intrusions on those rights should be limited to circumstances when officials have reason to believe a student may have engaged in improper conduct.”

The police chief has stated that students in Seekonk no longer show up to school dances with alcohol on their breath after a similar policy was implemented there. However, the ACLU letter said, “Social problems like underage drinking are not so easily solved,” and suggested that, more likely than not, some students may simply decide to wait until after the school function to drink alcohol, some might ingest drugs that will not be detected and some forgo the opportunity to attend the dance in order to consume alcohol elsewhere undetected.

The ACLU also emphasized “the technical challenges inherent in implementing a breathalyzer testing requirement on all students. These tests must be administered properly, and with machines that are properly maintained. Since we assume that a zero reading on a breathalyzer will be required, the possibilities for error are not insignificant when every student – not just those suspected of drinking – is subject to a test.”

The letter concluded by recognizing that the school district has been working hard to address this serious issue, but emphasized that “there are no shortcuts in dealing with a social problem like this. Tragic teenage deaths in the town, not to mention increased and severe penalties, both administrative and criminal, have not solved the problem.”

Current measures in place – such as the conspicuous presence of chaperones at the dances – “are not foolproof,” said the letter, “but little is gained by implementing policies like breathalyzer testing that are just as imperfect but that undermine the rights of students as well.” Only two months ago, the ACLU criticized the school district’s adoption of a policy authorizing student athletes to be suspended from extra-curricular activities if they are found “in the presence of” drugs, alcohol or tobacco.

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RI ACLU Files Discrimination Complaint 
Against North Kingstown Shipbuilder

The RI ACLU has filed a discrimination complaint against Senesco Marine, a large ship construction and repair facility in North Kingstown, claiming that the company engaged in a “blatant violation of state and federal laws protecting the rights of persons with disabilities.” The complaint was filed with the R.I. Commission for Human Rights by RI ACLU volunteer attorney Michael Feldhuhn.

According to the complaint, Senesco’s employment application form, posted on its web site, required all job applicants to attest that they were “physically and mentally capable of performing the essential job duties of the position for which [they] have applied” and that they “have no need for changes or adjustments in the essential duties of the job in order to allow [them] to meet the demands of the position.”

However, the ACLU complaint notes: “By well-established law, an employer must provide an employee with disabilities ‘reasonable accommodations’ that would allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the job. In purpose and effect, Senesco’s attestation operates to bar persons with disabilities from applying for a job unless they first waive their legal right to request reasonable accommodation.”

The complaint also alleges that Senesco’s application form falsely warns applicants that if it turns out that they do require reasonable accommodation due to a disability, they will forfeit their right to workers’ compensation benefits if they are injured on the job. The complaint calls this warning a “deliberate and blatant misrepresentation of applicable law [that] is intended to deter persons with disabilities from applying for a job if they would require reasonable accommodation.”

The ACLU first wrote Senesco officials in early November to express concerns about the legality of the company’s employment application form. Despite the passage of more than two months, Senesco took no corrective action, prompting the filing of the complaint. The complaint seeks remedies under the state Fair Employment Practices Act and Civil Rights of People with Disabilities Act, including injunctive relief, punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees.

RI volunteer attorney Feldhuhn said: “Senesco’s application form is an outrageous violation of the rights of people with disabilities. I am hopeful that the Commission will take favorable action to address this serious violation.”

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2009 General Assembly Session Gets Underway;
 Déjà Vu All Over Again

After the General Assembly adjourned last June, Governor Donald Carcieri wielded his pen like a sword to veto every major civil liberties bill that reached his desk. Regrettably, those vetoes went unanswered, as legislative leaders decided not to come back for an override session. As a result, the ACLU expects many of the issues that occupied the organization’s energy in 2008 to do the same this year. The vetoed bills covered a lot of ground – addressing issues as diverse as open government, discrimination, privacy and criminal justice. This article’s major focus is on those and other proactive bills the Affiliate will be actively lobbying for in the months ahead. Since most of this year’s legislation had not yet been introduced as this issue went to press, a review of some of the major anti-civil liberties bills the ACLU will be fighting will have to wait for April’s newsletter.

The Return of Vetoed Bills

Open Government. Last year, for the first time in a decade, the General Assembly approved comprehensive legislation to strengthen the state’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA). Unfortunately, this bill was met with a Gubernatorial veto, based on objections from the Attorney General and the State Police that it would somehow hamper police work. Among other things, the bill shortens the timeframe for public bodies to respond to open records requests and requires training of public information officers on their APRA obligations. An ACLU report issued in the fall of 2007, documenting widespread non-compliance with the statute, served as the impetus for this much-needed legislation. It has been reintroduced by Rep. Edith Ajello and Sen. Michael Lenihan. (H-5136, S-374, S-426)

R.I. Civil Rights Act. Demonstrating a blatant indifference to victims of discrimination, the Governor vetoed another important ACLU-promoted bill that had unanimously passed the legislature. The bill made clear that plaintiffs have three years, rather than one year, to sue under the Rhode Island Civil Rights Act, a major law banning discrimination in employment and other settings. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Donna Walsh and Sen. Daniel Connors, was in response to a R.I. Supreme Court ruling that concluded that complainants have only one year to bring suit, even though the default statute of limitations for virtually all other personal injury actions in Rhode Island is three years. In vetoing the bill, the Governor called the three-year proviso “unreasonable” to the business community. As a result of the veto, a victim of discrimination now has a shorter time to file suit than just about any other type of claimant, including a person who is a victim of a dog bite (three years) or of property damage to his or her car (ten years). The ACLU hopes the legislation will become law this year. (S-5135, S-162)

Radio Frequency ID. In 2006, the Governor vetoed ACLU legislation that restricted the state and municipalities from using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology on students, employees or clients. Originally developed to track cattle and commerce, RFID technology allows a person’s identity and movement to be monitored electronically. When the Middletown school district last year began a pilot program that placed RFID chips on the backpacks of elementary school children, purportedly to make sure they got on the right school bus, the need for this legislation became more apparent than ever. Because the Governor’s previous veto message had complained about the breadth of the bill, and particularly its limitations on employee monitoring, last year’s legislative sponsors, Sen. Frank Ciccone and Rep. Charlene Lima, limited the bill to apply to students only. (The bill also addressed RFID use by EZ-Pass toll payment systems by limiting public access to the information gathered by those systems.) Nonetheless, the Governor still vetoed the legislation, this time claiming RFID could somehow be helpful to schools in the event of “a natural disaster,” a Columbine incident or some terrorist attack. The ACLU is calling on the legislature to again approve this privacy bill, and this time to override any Gubernatorial veto of it. (S-211)

Mandatory Sentencing. The Governor’s fourth major veto in 2008 was one he had practice vetoing before – a bill to eliminate draconian mandatory minimum sentences contained in some of Rhode Island’s drug laws, which are the harshest in all of New England. When the Governor first vetoed the bill in 2007 at the request of the State Police, the ACLU argued that he not only ignored the proposal’s beneficial impact on the state’s ongoing prison population crisis and deep fiscal problems, he closed his eyes to the severe and discriminatory impact of drug sentencing laws on the state’s African-American and Latino population. In his 2008 veto message, the Governor weakly argued that the bill interfered with the judiciary’s ability to impose an appropriate sentence, even though the Presiding Justice of the Superior Court had expressed support for the legislation. (H-5007, S-39)

The Return of Other Pro-Active Legislation

Voting Rights. Rhode Island’s 2006 elections highlighted significant election law problems generated by restrictive Board of Elections’ policies. Although the problems were not as pronounced in 2008, the agency’s regulations continue to substantially and unfairly limit the counting of provisional ballots and the rights of candidates to contest disputed ballots during recounts of close elections. The ACLU has therefore reintroduced a bill, sponsored this year by Rep. Edith Ajello and Sen. Joshua Miller, designed to clarify the election statutes and strengthen the franchise in Rhode Island. (H-5326)

Racial Profiling. For the third year in a row, Sen. Rhoda Perry and Rep. Joseph Almeida are sponsoring a comprehensive racial profiling bill, supported by the ACLU and dozens of other organizations. Among other things, the bill strengthens the state’s current racial profiling law by requiring police to document the grounds for conducting car searches; limiting the authority of police to demand identification from innocent passengers; banning so-called “pretext” stops; and reestablishing traffic stop data collection procedures. An analysis of traffic stop data in Rhode Island has irrefutably shown that both blacks and Latinos are disproportionately stopped and searched by police in the state, even though they are less likely than whites to be found with contraband. Further, three out of four searches allegedly based on probable cause turn up no evidence of contraband. The ACLU believes passage of the bill is more urgent than ever, as racial profiling has only been exacerbated with some police departments now using traffic stops as an excuse to check into passengers’ immigration status. (H-5108, S-155)

Rights of Immigrants. A coalition of advocacy organizations is reintroducing a 10-piece legislative package to protect immigrants in Rhode Island from unfair discrimination in a wide variety of contexts. Among other things, the bills would keep employers, landlords and local police out of the business of enforcing complex federal immigration law; allow immigrant children to qualify for in-state tuition at public colleges; strengthen many labor laws such as workers’ compensation and the whistleblower act to prevent exploitation of workers; and expand RIte Care eligibility for immigrant children.

The ACLU is an active member of the coalition, known as Immigrants United. Last year, the Senate approved one of the bills, requiring the Department of Human Services to provide appropriate language interpreter services to clients in accordance with federal civil rights law. The legislation died in House Finance Committee, but is being reintroduced in 2009 by Sen. Maryellen Goodwin and Rep. Elizabeth Dennigan. (H-5357, S-306)

Medical Marijuana. Sen. Rhoda Perry and Rep. Thomas Slater are reintroducing legislation that would establish stateregulated compassion centers to allow authorized patients to safely obtain medical marijuana. In one of his more overthe- top actions last year, the Governor vetoed a bill that merely set up a study commission to examine this issue. (H-5359, S-185)

Political Surveillance. Rep. Rod Driver and Sen. Charles Levesque have reintroduced ACLU-promoted legislation to restrict political surveillance and data collection by police. This is not an abstract problem in Rhode Island. For example, local police reported to federal authorities a planned peaceful demonstration outside the Army National Guard recruiting station in downtown Providence; information about the protest ended up in a Department of Defense “terrorism” database. And Woonsocket police were found to have run license plate numbers of cars that were in a parking lot where an event for a political candidate was being held. (H-5172, S-153)

The Return of Anti-Civil Liberties Legislation

Notwithstanding the preceding summary of positive legislation, the ACLU will be spending much of the 2009 session the same way it always does – countering a variety of ill-conceived, if not dangerous, anti-civil liberties bills. Listed below are some of the issues that the Affiliate successfully fought against in 2008, and that have already returned this year:

  • Legislation, pushed by members of the Providence delegation and others, to expand the scope of the state’s prostitution laws, and to increase the penalties for violations. (H-5044, H-5254, S-7)
  • Legislation promoted by some members of the medical community to expand HIV testing while reducing the confidentiality protections in place for patients and severely limiting HIV counseling requirements. Last year, the General Assembly instead created a study commission to look more closely at the issues raised by the proposal. The commission is expected to propose legislation before the end of this session. (H-5415, S-245)
  • A pet proposal of the Secretary of State to require voters to present photo identification in order to vote on Election Day. (H-5097, S-437)
  • Legislation requiring all employers in the state to participate in the federal government’s faulty work authorization verification program known as “E-Verify.” The program contains millions of database errors and has been found to increase workplace discrimination on the basis of national origin. The bill passed the House last year but died in the Senate. (H-5143, S-210)
  • Perennial State Police bills authorizing the forced administration of blood tests on persons involved in serious vehicular accidents. (H-5039, S-416)

Given that the vast majority of bills had not been introduced as this newsletter went to press, this summary only scratches the surface of civil liberties-related legislation in the 2009 session. The next issue of “Civil Liberties” will provide an update on these bills and others being considered by the General Assembly. For more information about particular bills, members are encouraged to contact the ACLU office, and to also call, write and testify on legislation of interest and concern.

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RI ACLU Sues East Providence Over Ballot Access Restrictions

The Rhode Island ACLU has filed a federal lawsuit against the City of East Providence, challenging City Charter provisions that impose increased burdens, above and beyond what state law requires, on candidates who wish to run for local office. The lawsuit was filed by RI ACLU volunteer attorney Angel Taveras on behalf of Brian Monteiro, an unsuccessful Ward 2 candidate for the East Providence School Committee in the 2008 primary election.

The East Providence City Charter requires candidates for local office, including ward seats, to have their nomination papers signed by at least 200 qualified voters. The Charter also bars voters from signing more than one candidate’s nomination papers for the same office. However, Rhode Island law allows voters to sign nomination papers for multiple candidates running for the same office, and requires only 50 certified signatures from candidates seeking to run for ward seats.

Despite these state laws, the City Charter’s more onerous requirements were ratified by the General Assembly back in 1957. The ACLU lawsuit argues that these increased burdens violate Monteiro’s constitutional right to due process and equal protection of the laws.

When he ran for office in 2008, Monteiro turned in over 250 signatures; however, only 137 were deemed valid by the Board of Canvassers. The Board invalidated 19 of the signatures because the voters had also signed the nomination papers of his opponent. The lawsuit notes that, had Monteiro run for state representative or state senator from East Providence, he would only have had to obtain 50 or 100 signatures, respectively, to qualify.

Emphasizing this inequity, the lawsuit claims, “There is no reasonable or rational basis for requiring East Providence ward level candidates to obtain 200 signatures on their nominating petitions. Similarly, there is no reasonable or rational basis for allowing East Providence voters to sign only one candidate’s nomination papers for city elective offices, while allowing them to sign more than one nomination paper for candidates running in East Providence for state and federal elections.” The lawsuit suit seeks a court order declaring the provisions unconstitutional.

Monteiro, who hopes to run for office again, said, “I believe in an open and honest election process; government belongs to those whom it serves, the people. For a few months, I was disillusioned with the political process. However, eventually I realized that I could make things better for all by challenging these charter provisions, and that is why I am going forward with the case.” ACLU attorney Taveras added, “This case is about bringing East Providence in line with other cities and towns in Rhode Island. We should be making it easier, not more difficult, for citizens to run for office.”

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Court Strikes Down Highway Billboard Restrictions

Ruling in a case brought by the Rhode Island ACLU, a federal court has declared unconstitutional a state law and regulations that allow billboard signs on buildings near highways only if the sign promotes an activity taking place on the property. The suit was on behalf of Anthony Joseph Vono and his business, Specialty Promotions, which was cited in 2005 by the R.I. Department of Transportation for having a billboard sign that advertised “off premises activity.”

In supporting Vono’s First Amendment rights, U.S. District Judge William Smith found that the challenged state policies unconstitutionally gave greater protection to commercial speech than to political speech.

The Providence building in which Vono’s business operates includes a roof sign which is visible on I-95 North near the I-195 split. In 2005, when the sign was advertising the non-profit agency Casey Family Services, Vono was notified by DOT that he had to take it down because it advertised “an activity not occurring on the property where it is located.” Although a billboard sign was allowable, the DOT advised Vono that it could only advertise a business or activity taking place directly on the property.

The ACLU lawsuit, filed by volunteer attorney John W. Dineen, raised a number of legal challenges to the state law and regulations being relied upon by the DOT for its position. Judge Smith’s 37-page ruling focused on one in particular: that the DOT’s distinction between on-premises and off-premises messages contravened Vono’s First Amendment right to be free from content-based regulation of his speech.

Judge Smith explained the constitutional infirmity with the law and regulations by giving a concrete example of their effect:

“The owner of a music store, to take one example, could not replace her ‘Drums for Sale’ sign with a ‘Cut Property Taxes Now!’ message unless she conducted some tax-related activity in the music store. . . Rhode Island thus has decided that, at least in most cases, the communication of commercial information is of greater value than the communication of noncommercial messages. These prohibited noncommercial messages include political speech, the most highly prized category of speech. Because this prohibition inverts the First Amendment’s hierarchy … it is unconstitutional…”

RI ACLU attorney Dineen said: “The court’s decision reaffirms one of the most important principles of the First Amendment, that the government must not be in the business of allowing or prohibiting speech based in any way on the content of that expression.” It is not known whether the state plans to appeal the ruling.

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Board Officers and Directors Elected

The following are the results of the Year 2009 elections for the Rhode Island ACLU Board of Directors.

The officers are: Jennifer Azevedo, Chairperson; Anne Mulready, Vice-Chair; Karen Davidson, Treasurer; and Elizabeth Morancy, Secretary.

Nominees elected to the Board are: Elizabeth Earls, Christine Lopes, Kathleen Managhan, Maggi Burns Rogers, Jenn Steinfeld and Vivian Weisman.

Leaving the Board at this time are Wendy Becker, Bill Flynn and Carolyn Mannis. They all provided invaluable assistance to the Board during their terms, and the Board expresses its appreciation for their service.

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Tune in to the ACLU’s Monthly Cable Access Show

Throughout March, the ACLU’s cable access show “Rights of a Free People” will feature Carl Krueger, staff attorney at the International Institute of Rhode Island, and Jack McConnell, RI ACLU volunteer attorney in the wrongful death lawsuit against the Wyatt Detention Center. The attorneys will discuss some of the civil liberties abuses in the country’s immigrant detention system, as exemplified by the Wyatt lawsuit and the incidents depicted in the film The Visitor.

Showtimes: 


  • Channel 13: Tuesdays 10:00pm & Fridays 3:30 pm (Channel 32 on Verizon FIOS)

  • Channel 18: (In Providence & N. Providence) Wednesdays 9:00pm (Channel 38 on Verizon FIOS)

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50th Anniversary Highlights

The Rhode Island ACLU’s 50th Anniversary celebration hit the ground running, with the Affiliate hosting three major events in the first weeks of the new year.

The celebration kicked-off with a standing room only crowd at our screening of the highly-acclaimed feature film, The Visitor, starring Trinity Rep alumnus Richard Jenkins. The film tells the story of an American college professor and a young immigrant couple grappling with the treatment of immigrants and the legal process post-9/11. Following the film there was a question and answer period with local immigration attorney Carl Krueger. Due to the overwhelming interest in the film, the Affiliate was able to host a second screening to another full house. The movie was shown as a way to educate the public about the immigrant detention system and the problems of racial profiling in Rhode Island.

The events depicted in the film were made even more relevant in light of the lawsuit recently filed by the Affiliate on behalf of an immigrant detainee who died in custody in Rhode Island.

The screenings were co-sponsored by the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the International Institute of Rhode Island, Providence Youth Student Movement (PrYSM), National Association of Social Workers — Rhode Island Chapter, Participant Media and Active Voice. The Affiliate would also like to extend a thank you to the Cable Car Cinema in Providence for providing the theater space for both screenings.

Following on the heels of the screening, the Affiliate held a debate on “national security” — the first of three debates it will be hosting throughout the state — at the Old State House in Providence. The debates feature U.S. Attorney Robert Corrente and local civil liberties expert and attorney Jerry Elmer, discussing the very timely subject of “National Security and Civil Liberties: Guantanamo, Military Commissions and the Obama Administration.”

Although the weather was not working on our side for the first debate, there was a small group of brave attendees. Both speakers provided their views on how the U.S. should navigate through these issues. They touched on such matters as how to handle enemy combatants, and what the new administration’s view of the “war on terror” would and should be. The debate was followed by a question and answer period.

The Affiliate would like to extend its gratitude to Robert Jones at The Old State House for opening up the building for our use. The next two debates are scheduled in Bristol and the University of Rhode Island.

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