November/December 2013 - an ACLU of Rhode Island Newsletter


Protecting Civil Liberties in Rhode Island for Over 50 Years


November/December 2013 Newsletter

Volume: XIX, Issue Number: 5

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Newsletter Contents

National Drone Expert Urges Legislative Regulation of Surveillance Technology

A national drone expert addressing ACLU of Rhode Island members and friends has urged proactive, thorough regulation of drone and other surveillance technologies at the state level, encouraging advocacy by concerned groups and individuals to address the problems of surveillance technology as quickly as possible.

Director of the Domestic Surveillance Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Amie Stepanovich served as the keynote speaker at the 2013 Affiliate Annual Dinner & Meeting on November 8th. Ms. Stepanovich spoke on the dangerous erosion of privacy that citizens face as different forms of surveillance become more widespread.  She noted, “I don’t think we can understand how quickly it [technology] is advancing.  We’re seeing major improvements every few months.” 

Speaking to issues that the Affiliate has been fighting about in the General Assembly, Ms. Stepanovich spoke urgently about the exponential growth in the use of drones, especially in the hands of law enforcement agencies.  Impending changes to FAA regulations pertaining to drones and drone use may soon make it easier for police departments to obtain approval to use drones for a number of reasons. 

To date, fewer than ten states have enacted legislation restricting the use of drones by law enforcement, but virtually every state has considered such legislation.  In Rhode Island this year, the General Assembly considered ACLU-drafted legislation that would have required law enforcement to obtain a warrant prior to any surveillance by drones, except in certain emergency cases involving a serious risk of death or physical harm.  The legislation failed to move, but will be reintroduced during the 2014 legislative session as part of a comprehensive package of legislation designed by the ACLU to address technological privacy in the state.   The next issue of the newsletter will include more information about that package.

During her time in Rhode Island, Ms. Stepanovich met with local legislators, including key supporters of last year’s drone legislation, to discuss the technology, the privacy concerns that come with them, and the necessary components of any successful drone legislation.  She also spoke to Brown University students on privacy and surveillance at an event hosted by the Brown University student chapter of the ACLU. Her visit also received extensive media coverage.

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ACLU Names Providence Student Union Civil Libertarian of the Year

At its annual dinner celebration on November 8th, the ACLU of Rhode Is-land presented the “Raymond J. Pettine Civil Libertarian of the Year” award to the Providence Student Union.

The Providence Student Union’s inventive, passionate and positive efforts to give students a voice in decisions affecting their education have significantly impacted students’ rights in recent years.  In particular, their strong advocacy against the state’s new high stakes testing requirements for high school seniors has resulted in a statewide conversation about the fairness and effectiveness of high stakes testing that has involved students, parents, educators, and legislators alike. 

The Affiliate congratulates the Providence Student Union on their award and for continuing to make their voices heard for all of the students around the state.

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Tune in to the ACLU's Monthly Cable Access Show, "Rights of a Free People"

Every month the RI ACLU’s long-running cable access show “Rights of a Free People” features a discussion on key civil liberties issues.  During the month of January, we will be airing Amie Stepanovich’s keynote speech from this year’s Annual Dinner Celebration & Meeting.  Check it out!

Playing in January: Annual Dinner Celebration, Part Two
Playing in February: 2014 Legislative Preview

Ch. 13: Tuesdays 10:00pm & Fridays 3:30pm (Ch. 32 on Verizon FiOS)
Ch. 18: (In Providence & N. Providence) Wednesdays 9:00pm (Ch. 38 on Verizon FiOS)

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From the Desk of the Executive Director

As 2013 comes to a close, it’s time to reflect on how civil liberties fared during the year, and the small list on Page 4 provides just a few highlights.

But with the Affiliate’s well-known active legislative and legal programs, it’s easy to forget the important advocacy work we perform every day outside the courtroom and the State House. Less famously, we routinely testify before public bodies large and small on pro-posed ordinances, regulations and policies that, no less so than the General Assembly, could have a significant impact on the civil rights and liberties of Rhode Islanders. The three examples cited on the following page give a flavor of that often-hidden advocacy work.

Ultimately, though, whether we are litigating, lobbying, educating or otherwise advocating, our ability to do so much depends on the support we receive from donors like you. I encourage you to make a special year-end tax-deductible donation to ensure we will be prepared for the challenges that 2014 will surely bring. Thanks, and best wishes for the New Year.

-- Steven Brown

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ACLU Testifies Before Legislative Task Force on Mental Health Privacy and Gun Registries

The ACLU of RI testified in November before the Joint Behavioral Health and Firearms Safety Task Force, urging the Task Force to approve only extremely narrow participation in transmitting mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

The NICS is a federal system designed to permit states to upload information -- including some criminal, mental health, and substance abuse records -- to a nationwide database in order to allow gun sellers to determine if an individual is barred under the law from possessing a gun. As of November 2011, Rhode Island was one of 17 states that had submitted fewer than 10 mental health records to NICS, and one of 44 states that had submitted fewer than ten substance abuse records.  In 2013, the General Assembly formed the Task Force to determine the extent to which Rhode Island should participate in NICS in the future, and what laws must be altered to allow for such participation, as Rhode Island’s mental health privacy law currently prohibits disclosure of mental health information for this purpose.

In written testimony, ACLU Policy Associate Hillary Davis emphasized “that mental illness is not a predictor of violence; that turning over confidential medical information in this context may unnecessarily advance some of the inappropriate stigma surrounding mental illness and drug abuse; and, perhaps most importantly, that breaching confidentiality for purposes of populating the federal database may be counter-productive by actually discouraging individuals with mental illness or substance abuse problems from seeking help. We urge the Commission to keep these concerns in mind if it decides that Rhode Island should voluntarily add records of mental illness to the NICS Index.” Other mental health advocacy groups expressed similar views.

The ACLU encouraged that any amendments to state privacy law be confined to narrow, non-medical in-formation on only those individuals involuntarily confined by court order for inpatient mental health treatment, and that this information be purged from the system after five years in accordance with state gun ownership laws. For more information and to read our written testimony, visit

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ACLU Testifies Before State Vehicle Value Commission

The Affiliate in October testified before the Rhode Island Vehicle Value Commission, urging the Commission, as it has urged in past years, to abandon their flawed methodology and adopt a more real-world evaluation process that includes due process protections for individuals contesting the tax value assigned to their cars.

In recent years the Commission has used only the NADA “clean retail value” to determine a car’s worth. In addition, the Commission’s current practice denies any meaningful appeal process to aggrieved car owners, since the appeal consists solely of checking to see if a clerical error was made and fails to consider whether the valuation itself was appropriate. The ACLU encouraged the Commisssion to consider, as it had done in the past, other factors cited in state law that would offer a more complete and realistic basis of a car’s taxable value, and to authorize a meaningful appeal process.

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ACLU Urges URI Not to Arm Campus Police

The Affiliate submitted written testimony in October to the University of Rhode Island as the school weighed whether to permit campus police officers to carry weapons on campus.

The ACLU has long been concerned with the over-policing of schools, and the blurring lines between school safety and constant law enforcement monitoring.  While fear of violent crime has increased in recent years, violent crime on campus remains rare.  In contrast, the presence of armed officers has sometimes negatively impacted student safety, resulting in instances of students wounded by accidental discharges and killed in “suicide by cop” scenarios. 

The ACLU’s testimony noted: “We agree that no student should have to attend class worrying that they might be shot. Arming campus police officers does not alleviate that concern.” In a welcome development, Rhode Island College announced it will not arm its officers.

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Civil Liberties in Rhode Island - The Year in Review

2013 certainly kept the ACLU of Rhode Island busy. Below is a brief review highlighting just some of the Affiliate's activities this year on a variety of key civil liberties issues.

FREEDOM OF SPEECH.  A federal court ruled that Providence Police violated the rights of a local resident who had been barred from leafleting outside a building where the Mayor was giving his annual State of the City address.

SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE. ACLU intervention helped convince the City of Provi-dence to remove a cross appearing in a roadway median under the City’s “adopt-a-spot” program.

OPEN MEETINGS.  An ACLU lawsuit forced the RI Board of Education to hold in public a scheduled private “retreat” on the subject of high stakes testing.

REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS.  Working with other groups, the Affiliate secured a Gubernatorial veto of a bill that would have authorized state production of “Choose Life” license plates, the proceeds of which would have gone to a religious organization.

PRIVACY.  ACLU lobbying prevented passage of legislation that would have authorized police to take DNA samples from persons merely arrested for numerous criminal offenses.

RIGHTS OF IMMIGRANTS.  The ACLU obtained a substantial settlement on behalf of the family of a 34-year-old Chinese national who died of medical neglect at the Wyatt Detention Center while awaiting resolution of his immigration status.

THE “WAR ON DRUGS.” The ACLU favorably settled a lawsuit against the Cranston School Depart-ment on behalf of a mother who had been barred from volunteering at her child’s elementary school because she had a past criminal history of drug addiction.

VOTING RIGHTS.  ACLU lobbying efforts halted an under-the-radar effort to make the state’s photo ID voter law, scheduled to take full effect in 2014, even more onerous for voters.

OPEN RECORDS. An ACLU report documented the Attorney General’s failure to vigorously enforce the Access to Public Records Act, and prompted the passage of legislation addressing routine violations of the law by municipal fire districts.

LGBT RIGHTS.  In a major victory for equal rights, Rhode Island became the tenth state in the country to recognize same-sex marriage.

RIGHTS OF STUDENTS.  Following ACLU intervention, Barrington school officials backed off of their demands that a high school student submit for advance review the editions of an “underground newspaper” he was writing and publishing as part of his senior project.

SCHOOL-TO-PRISION PIPELINE.  An ACLU report documenting widespread racial disparities in school disciplinary practices prompted the introduction of legislation to curtail this discriminatory treatment.

POLICE PRACTICES.  ACLU intervention halted the passage of legislation that would have given casino employees police powers to forcibly detain and question patrons suspected of violating gaming laws.

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Affiliate Notes

Gift the Gift of ACLU Membership

The need has never been greater for new supporters of the ACLU. Help protect the Constitution in the state and nationwide with a unique gift opportunity this season: give an ACLU membership to your friends and family. 

Your gift membership will make a real difference in the fight to defend our cherished and endangered civil liberties. You can gift an ACLU membership by calling the office at 831-7171.

Join the Conversation

Become a fan of the ACLU of RI on Facebook, and keep up to date on our events, news releases, court cases, and our work at the State House.

You can also sign up for our e-alerts, and receive important notices on ACLU events, calls to action, notifications on major legislation and court cases, and more - directly to your inbox. To sign up, visit our website at

Your Eastside Marketplace Receipts Can Help the ACLU

The ACLU of RI participates in Eastside Marketplace's Friendship Fund. The Friendship Fund is the store's way of giving back to the community. Simply save your receipts and mail them to the RI ACLU office. Eastside Marketplace then issues checks at the rate of 1% of the total Eastside Marketplace register receipts redeemed. The more receipts redeemed, the more money we raise!

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In Memoriam: Carolyn Swift

The ACLU of Rhode Island mourns the passing of Carolyn Ruth Swift at the age of 85.

Lyn was an active member of the Rhode Island Affiliate during most of its existence. In the Affiliate’s early years, she was particularly active in the Affiliate’s campaign to educate the public about the dangers of the House Un-American Activities Committee and to work for its abolition. She was also an active volunteer in the Affiliate’s efforts to secure passage of the state’s first fair housing law. In later years, she was heavily involved in promoting the Affiliate’s work on gay and lesbian rights. There is perhaps no better example of her long-term commitment to the organization than by noting that she served as Chair of the Affiliate in the early 1960’s as well as in the 1980’s.

The Affiliate expresses its deepest condolences to Lyn’s life partner Edith Kur, and to her sons Thomas and Peter Lenz.

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Remember the ACLU Foundation of Rhode Island This December

As we look back on the past year, we are reminded of the wide breadth of issues, lawsuits, advocacy, and events that make up our program.  This year we lobbied on hundreds of bills, hosted numerous successful events, took on a variety of new lawsuits, testified before dozens of public agencies, produced twelve television programs, and worked in coalition with countless other organizations on a wide range of key civil liberties issues.  In order to allow us to continue at this pace, your special end-of-the-year support of our work is critical.  Please help us continue our efforts in 2014 in the midst of this tough economic climate. 

With 2013 drawing to a close, consider making a special, tax-deductible contribution to the ACLU Foundation of Rhode Island.  There are two easy ways you can contribute:
∗ Donate directly on our website at; or
∗ Send a check to: ACLU Foundation of Rhode Island
    128 Dorrance Street, Suite 220 – Providence, RI 02903

If you are looking for a way to give year-round, consider participating in a payroll deduction plan.  If you’re a state employee, you can contribute through the State Employees Charity Appeal Campaign (SECA). Our designated SECA number is 3980.  If you’re a private employee, you can give via the United Way or the Fund for Community Progress by writing “ACLU Foundation of R.I.” in the space provided on either pledge form. Thank You!

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