Summer 2017 Newsletter
Volume: XXIII, Issue Number: 3
The ACLU of RI has favorably settled a federal lawsuit against Tiverton police and school officials over an incident in which an 8-year-old girl was removed by police from a school bus, taken alone to the police station without her parents’ knowledge, and then held and questioned at the station for several hours before being released. The lawsuit argued that the Tiverton officials’ actions violated the child’s constitutional rights to due process and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.
The suit stemmed from an incident in 2014 when a student falsely told a school bus attendant that the girl and another student had “chemicals” in their backpacks. The bus was stopped and Tiverton police officers and school officials were called to the scene. Police removed the two 8-year-old girls from the bus, and upon searching their bags, found no evidence of chemicals or anything else suspicious. Despite having no grounds to believe the two children had done anything wrong, the police still took them to the police station and accused them of not telling the truth before contacting their parents.
That evening, the school robocalled all elementary school parents, wrongly informing them that two students had made threats to set a school bus on fire. No further action was taken against the accused students, while the girl who made the false accusations was disciplined.
Under the settlement, the Town agreed to pay $40,000 in damages to the family, and also adopted a formal protocol to deal with any similar incidents in the future. Among other things, the protocol requires police to immediately inform and involve school officials when an officer wants to remove an elementary school student from a school bus. The policy also bars, absent a likelihood of imminent harm, any police or school official interrogation of children until their parents are present.
Amato DeLuca, the lead ACLU volunteer attorney in the case, said: “I am very pleased that we were able to reach an agreement with the Town. The enacted protocols will provide children and their families with necessary protections against unreasonable and unwarranted searches and seizures, while also ensuring that the police department will still be able to perform its duties to insure the safety of the town’s young residents.”
ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown added: “The ACLU is hopeful that this new protocol will prevent any other student from going through what this child endured. This case is a concrete reminder that over-policing of our schools and our students must stop.”
In an important ACLU of Rhode Island lawsuit dealing with the rights of medical marijuana patients, R.I. Superior Court Justice Richard Licht ruled that a Westerly fabrics company unlawfully discriminated against Christine Callaghan when the offer of a paid internship was rescinded solely because of her participation in the state’s medical marijuana program.
At the time, Callaghan was studying textiles and working towards a masters’ degree in that field at URI. She had participated in the medical marijuana program for almost two years to deal with frequent, debilitating migraine headaches when she applied for a paid internship at Darlington Fabrics Company. Although she was initially offered the internship, the company withdrew it after finding out about her medical status.
The judge agreed with arguments made by ACLU volunteer attorney Carly Beauvais Iafrate that the failure to hire Callaghan because of her status as a medical marijuana user violated the medical marijuana law, which bars employment discrimination against “cardholders,” and constituted disability discrimination in violation of the RI Civil Rights Act. The company plans to appeal the decision.
In its first legal push to counter municipal efforts to undermine the state’s medical marijuana law, the ACLU of RI has sued the Town of Smithfield over a new ordinance that imposes significant burdens on medical marijuana patients’ access to treatment. The suit, filed by volunteer attorneys C. Alexander Chiulli, John Meara and Matthew Plain, argues that the restrictions are directly contrary to stringent regulations already in place under Rhode Island’s medical marijuana law.
Among the conflicts cited: the ordinance limits the growing of medical marijuana to two mature plants and two seedlings, and only at a patient’s primary residence, even though Rhode Island law specifically allows for the cultivation of 12 mature plants and outlines where medical marijuana can be grown. The ordinance also bars caregivers from growing medical marijuana anywhere in the town.
The ACLU is considering filing additional lawsuits against other municipalities with similarly restrictive ordinances that conflict with the state’s medical marijuana law.
From the Desk of the Executive Director
Since January, we’ve been working tirelessly testifying on legislation that will impact civil liberties in Rhode Island. As this issue of our newsletter highlights, we’ve also been continuing our legal and public education work at the state and local level. Taken together, these efforts are our best means of protecting our fundamental rights from the mess that is playing out at the federal level.
Fortunately, we’ve had a number of key legal victories in the past two months. On the student rights front, we successfully settled the case of a Tiverton third-grader who was arrested and held for questioning without her parents present. We also won an important case on behalf of a medical marijuana cardholder whose offer of a job was rescinded when the company found out about her use of medical marijuana.
And even though summer is upon us, there’s never a slow day at the ACLU of RI. In June, we sued the Town of Smithfield over a burdensome and restrictive medical marijuana ordinance - just as many other RI municipalities consider similar ways to undermine the State’s medical marijuana law. Amidst news of an arrest by ICE agents at a Providence courthouse, we sent letters to top state officials calling on them to use their power to protect RI’s immigrants. And we recently released two new reports – one on the privacy of school-loaned laptops, and another on transgender policies in RI schools. Now that school is out, we hope that you – and education officials – will take the time to read and consider the reports’ recommendations.
Of course, no June would be complete without a celebration of Pride! On that note, I hope you will read on for more information on our recent proud work to protect civil liberties in RI.
And as always, thank you for standing with us.
Raising alarm about the lack of privacy for students and their families, the ACLU of RI released a report showing that many school districts in the state give themselves the right to remotely spy on students through the use of school-loaned laptop computers. The report, “High School Non-Confidential: How School-Loaned Computers May be Peering into Your Home,” highlights that, in many districts, school computer loan policies require students and parents to give up any right to privacy in order to participate. The report’s recommendations include restricting remote access to the content of the devices, banning remote activation of the computers’ webcam or microphones, and requiring reasonable suspicion of misconduct for laptop searches.
In the wake of the Trump administration’s repeal of federal guidance addressing the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming students, the ACLU of RI has released a report, “Beyond Bathrooms: Trans-gender and Gender Non-Conforming Student Policies in Rhode Island,” which revealed that only 60% of RI school districts have policies in place to protect the rights of transgender students. Of those districts with policies, most have adopted the RI Department of Education’s (RIDE) detailed guidance on the issue. But the report notes that schools are not required to adopt any policy at all, and this situation leaves too many students at risk of discrimination. Accordingly, the report calls on RIDE to require every school district to adopt a policy addressing transgender and gender non-conforming student needs. The ACLU plans to formally petition RIDE to impose this requirement. The report also urges school districts to regularly evaluate their schools’ gender-based activities, policies and rules to ensure they have a pedagogical purpose.
The ACLU of RI has filed a lawsuit against the Ocean Community YMCA in Westerly on behalf of Elizabeth Gooding, a mother of three, for violating her right to breastfeed in public. The suit claims that the facility repeatedly prohibited Gooding, who was employed there, from breastfeeding her baby, in violation of state anti-discrimination laws and a statute specifically allowing breastfeeding in public.
The complaint claims that in February 2015, while nursing her one-year-old infant in the YMCA’s daycare area, YMCA employees told Gooding that she could not breastfeed her child. After the incident, several YMCA supervisors confirmed that she would not be allowed to breastfeed in public due to “concerns about young boys.” A month later, Gooding attempted to breastfeed there again, and again was rebuffed by staff and supervisors. She then spoke directly with the Ocean Community YMCA President, who, the suit claims, denied that there was any need to change the center’s breastfeeding policy, refused to hold a training for employees, and added that Gooding should be “more discreet.”
In filing the suit, being handled by ACLU volunteer attorney H. Jefferson Melish, Gooding said: “I am speaking out for women who have been shamed, degraded, harassed, or otherwise prevented from nurturing their children by breastfeeding. Following these extremely upsetting incidents, I decided to take a stand in hopes of enacting effective change in support of one of our most natural civil rights.”
In the face of the federal government’s attack on immigrants, the ACLU and a dozen other non-profit organizations – all of which regularly interact with the state’s immigrant communities – sent letters to the state’s Governor, Attorney General and Chief Justice, calling on them to use their power to protect RI’s immigrants.
At a news conference announcing these requests, Javier Juarez, a recently-graduated DACA student (DACA is the federal program that protects from deportation youth who came to the U.S. as children) from RI College, explained how he was able to finish school only because of the state’s in-state tuition policy for people like himself, emphasizing the importance of state officials taking strong stands to support immigrants.
Notably, a handful of other Attorneys-General and state Chief Justices across the country have taken the steps requested by the Rhode Island groups. This community effort comes amid reports of heavy-handed immigration enforcement actions at courthouses, including the recent arrest by ICE agents of an undocumented immigrant at a Providence courthouse.
RI’s poorest families are still suffering as a result of delays caused by UHIP, the state’s troubled new computer system established for processing benefits. That is the upshot of recent reports sent by the state Department of Human Services to the ACLU and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice (NCLEJ), required as part of a settlement agreement in the organizations’ legal challenge to DHS’s failure to timely process SNAP applications. When the class action lawsuit was filed in December 2016, the ACLU and NCLEJ argued that the “systematically inadequate and faulty statewide implementation” of UHIP was causing “thousands of households to suffer the imminent risk of ongoing hunger as a result of being denied desperately needed assistance to help them feed their families.” In response to the state’s continued deficiency in meeting the settlement agreement’s goals, the ACLU and NCLEJ are considering next steps.
The ACLU of Rhode Island has filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Cranston, challenging its blatantly selective enforcement of an ordinance that bars the placement of commercial advertisements on city property. The suit was filed by ACLU attorney Richard Sinapi on behalf of Stephen Hunter, a lawyer who was threatened with fines if he did not take down signs advertising his business – even though there were dozens of other advertising signs posted at the same locations. The lawsuit argues that the City's conduct violates Hunter’s rights to freedom of speech and equal protection of the laws. The lawsuit seeks an injunction to prevent the City from continuing to interfere with his right to post signs.
In a blow to open government, R.I. Superior Court Judge Alice Gibney rejected Governor Raimondo’s petition, joined by the ACLU, for the release of grand jury records relating to the 38 Studios investigation. The decision comes after years of effort on the part of numerous groups advocating for the release of the documents on this taxpayer scandal. The Governor has indicated that she plans to appeal the decision to the R.I. Supreme Court, and the ACLU expects to participate in the appeal. In the meantime, the ACLU also plans to assist the Governor’s defense of a separate lawsuit filed by the Attorney General, in which he is seeking to halt the disclosure of State Police records of their investigation of the scandal.
Please join us for our annual Legislative Wrap-Up - an informal, free event to discuss how our civil liberties fared in the 2017 General Assembly session. Listen, ask questions, and learn while enjoying delicious desserts from local businesses.
Thank you to everyone who joined us this year for Pride Fest on June 17th! As in years past, the ACLU of RI had a bustling booth with information on LGBT civil liberties and related issues. This year we invited visitors to do the Limbo, and it was a rousing success! We distributed more than 500 give-a-way bags with fact sheets, stickers and other Pride-related goodies. Special thanks to all the volunteers who helped with preparations and staffing the table – we could not have done it without all of you!
On May 19, we held an exclusive screening of The Visitor with special guest Richard Jenkins, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his leading role in the film. Originally released in 2008, The Visitor looks at the personal impact of immigration issues – especially timely given the Trump administration’s recent attack on immigrants in the U.S. Jenkins joined us for a meet-and-greet prior to the screening, and following the film, we held an audience Q&A with him and immigration attorney Carl Krueger. Thank you to Richard, Carl and everyone who attended – and to the Cable Car Cinema for hosting!
A HUGE thank you to ACLU of RI members Tony Houston and Michael Crooks! In May, Tony and Michael held a house party at their Cranston residence to raise money for the ACLU of RI. More than 50 people attended, and in addition to refreshments, the pair distributed ACLU swag and information on pressing civil liberties issues.
Interested in throwing a house party to raise funds for the ACLU of RI? Call the office for more info (401) 831-7171.