November/December 2014 - an ACLU of Rhode Island Newsletter

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November/December 2014 Newsletter

Volume: XX, Issue Number: 5

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ACLU Sues Providence Police Again for Violating Free Speech Rights of Protesters

The ACLU of Rhode Island has filed a federal lawsuit against the Providence Police Department for violating the “clearly established” free speech rights of two protesters last year at a fundraiser in Roger Williams Park for then-Gubernatorial candidate Gina Raimondo. The suit alleges that the police department’s actions amounted to a “willful” violation of the “constitutionally protected right of people to peaceably assemble and demonstrate in public parks.”

The lawsuit, filed by ACLU volunteer attorney Richard A. Sinapi on behalf of Shannah Kurland and Gladys Gould, stems from police actions outside a September 26, 2013 fundraiser for Raimondo at the Roger Williams Park Casino in Providence. Over 200 people, including Kurland and Gould, gathered in the park outside the Casino with signs to protest Raimondo’s controversial pension reform activities. During the course of the protest, the lawsuit claims, the two plaintiffs (along with the other demonstrators) were ordered by Providence police to move farther and farther away from the Casino, making it much more difficult for them to have their message seen and heard by individuals attending the event.

Without any given justification, Gould was ordered to move farther away from the Casino three times. As a result, she was forced from protesting where she started, on a sidewalk within 50 feet of the Casino entrance, to an area that was about 285 feet away and also distant from the parking lot entrance. Gould reluctantly moved each time, but when Kurland refused to move to the farthest location, she was arrested for disorderly conduct, purportedly for obstructing traffic, even though she remained on the grass island at all times.

The lawsuit notes that parks and sidewalks “are quintessential public forums, and the Supreme Court has consistently affirmed the right of demonstrators to use them,” and that a claim of “obstruction of traffic” is “not a talisman that can be employed to turn bedrock First Amendment protections to dust.”

Only six months earlier in another ACLU case, a federal judge had condemned the Providence Police Department’s practice of “clearing vast public spaces” of people engaged in free speech activity without legal cause. That case involved a Providence resident who had been barred by police from leafleting outside a venue where then-Mayor David Cicilline was speaking. The City ended up paying $75,000 in damages and fees to settle that case.

The latest lawsuit asks the court to, among other remedies, declare the actions of the police a violation of Kurland and Gould’s free speech rights, require proper training and instruction of police on the First Amendment rights of demonstrators, and rule that Kurland’s arrest violated her right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.


From the Desk of the Executive Director

“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” In examining the battles over civil liberties across the decades, those words of Aldous Huxley certainly have the ring of truth to them.

They are perhaps no more true than in the context of race relations in the country. That many people suggest that we live in a post-racial society confirms Huxley’s fear all too well.

Just look at the events following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner or consider the striking statistic thrown out at a recent public forum: There are more African-American men in prison, jail, or on probation or parole today than were enslaved in 1850.

While there is no magic bullet, our Affiliate has continuously been working to address some of the effects of this deep-seated discrimination.

Among many of those activities are our work to rein in police practices that lead to racial profiling and to halt school suspension practices that promote the school-to-prison pipeline.

With your continued support, we look forward to the day that, at least when it comes to race, we can prove Huxley wrong.

 -- Steven Brown


ACLU Sues Over Medical Marijuana Discrimination

The ACLU of Rhode Island has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a URI graduate student who was denied employment this year at a fabrics company because of her status as a registered medical marijuana user.

The suit, filed in R.I. Superior Court by ACLU volunteer attorney Carly Beauvais Iafrate, is on behalf of Christine Callaghan, a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design who is studying textiles and working towards a masters’ degree in that field at URI. She has participated in the medical marijuana program for almost two years to deal with frequent, debilitating migraine headaches.

Callaghan was prepared to start a paid internship in July, which would also be for class credit, at Darlington Fabrics in Westerly. During an interview with a person in the company’s human resources department, Callaghan disclosed her medical condition and status as a cardholder under the state’s medical marijuana program. She explained that she would not bring medical marijuana onto the premises or come to work after having taken marijuana.

Nonetheless, the company withdrew the paid internship after finding out about her medical status. As a result of not being hired, the lawsuit argues, Callaghan “was unable to find replacement summer employment, lost the benefit of a major networking opportunity with one of the only companies left in Rhode Island in her field, lost important and unique experience that Defendants were offering, was forced to disclose her medical marijuana status to her professors, and her ability to graduate on time was placed into jeopardy as a result of having to try to find another internship at the last minute.”

The lawsuit argues that “a potential employer’s failure to hire a medical marijuana patient because of, or related to, his or her status as a medical marijuana user and/or cardholder” constitutes disability discrimination in violation of the RI Civil Rights Act, and also violates the medical marijuana law, which protects cardholders from discrimination in employment.

Plaintiff Callaghan said: “I just want Darlington and other companies in Rhode Island to treat me and other licensed patients the same way they would treat any other employee with a chronic health condition who is taking medication, as the law requires.”


Give the Gift of Membership

The support of our members allows us to be the state’s strongest defender of civil liberties. This season, help friends and family join our community of dedicated civil libertarians by giving them an ACLU membership.

Call the ACLU of RI office (401-831-7171) to purchase a gift membership.


Annual Meeting Celebration
October 23, 2014 ~ Providence Biltmore

ACLU of Rhode Island members, supporters and friends gathered at the Providence Biltmore on October 23 to celebrate the Affiliate’s work this past year. Guests socialized while enjoying hors d’oeuvres and cocktails, and enjoyed a slideshow highlight of some of Rhode Island’s civil liberties successes. This year, the Affiliate honored LGBT activist and longtime ACLU volunteer John Blakeslee as the 2014 Raymond J. Pettine Civil Libertarian of the Year. In addition, ACLU volunteer attorneys Mark Freel, Lynette Labinger, and Marc Gursky gave attendees an inside look at a few recent Affiliate court victories they had handled.

John Blakeslee accepts the 2014 Civil Libertarian of the Year Award.

ACLU volunteer attorneys and guest speakers Lynette Labinger, Mark Freel and Marc Gursky.

Guests applaud as Mr. Blakeslee accepts his award.


RI Voters Reject a “Con Con”

On Election Day, Rhode Island voters ensured their civil right and liberties would not be subject to the whim of the majority by voting to reject the calling of a constitutional convention. Voters decisively turned down the divisive ballot question by a 55%-45% margin.

The ACLU of RI worked tirelessly with a diverse coalition of community and advocacy groups to educate Rhode Islanders of the dangers of opening the state constitution to wholesale revision and to warn how a convention could roll back abortion rights, voting rights and other fundamental civil liberties – just as the last convention held in Rhode Island in 1986 did.

We thank our members and our many colleagues on the coalition for their successful efforts in defeating this dangerous ballot question.


Molly Coffey Receives Her Diploma

Molly Coffey, the Barrington High School senior whose plight led to the General Assembly’s passage of a law establishing a moratorium on the state’s “high stakes testing” requirement for graduation, finally received her diploma in October.

Despite the law’s passage in June, the Barrington School Department initially refused to issue Molly a diploma, citing new grounds for their decision. The ACLU sent a letter to the Barrington School Committee in support of Molly’s appeal, arguing that the district was unlawfully retaliating against her because of her involvement in the legislative debate. The school committee reversed course shortly thereafter.

The ACLU commended the Coffey family for their efforts, which spared thousands of students from the stress and unfairness of high stakes testing.


Make a Year-End Donation to the ACLU Foundation of Rhode Island

Please consider making a special end-of-year donation today. Your tax-deductible gift will help the ACLU of Rhode Island remain strong so we can take on many new challenges in the year ahead.

You can make a donation by mail, by calling our office (401-831-7171), or by visiting www.riaclu.org /get-involved/donate. Make checks payable to: ACLU Foundation of Rhode Island.


North Kingstown “Vicious Dog” Ordinance Challenged

If a dog is declared vicious, does a town have the right to seize the animal and potentially euthanize it solely because the pet owner lives within one mile of a school or day-care facility? The ACLU of RI has entered its appearance in a court case in order to challenge the enforcement of a North Kingstown ordinance that has placed a local family in the position of losing their pets despite complying with all relevant state laws. The case also raises fundamental due process concerns since the town had already agreed in a legal proceeding that the animals could be kept if the owners took steps to better confine the pets.

North Kingstown resident Kristy Miserendino, her boyfriend and her mother own three pit bulls. A hearing panel, convened pursuant to state law, declared two of the dogs vicious after nipping a passerby outside their home. The hearing panel, which included a representative from the town’s police department, ruled that they could keep the two dogs if they complied with a series of requirements, including posting a warning sign on their property and requiring the dogs to be in an enclosed area when outside on the property and on a leash and muzzled when off the property. The owners did not appeal the decision, and quickly complied with the requirements.

However, over a month after the state hearing, the police department advised them for the first time of a local ordinance that bars any vicious dog from being housed within a mile of a school or day-care facility. Because the Miserendino house is less than a mile away from a school, police seized the dogs, Balou and Ozzy, and have kept them at the town shelter. If the ordinance is upheld, the dogs face euthanization.

ACLU volunteer attorney Mark B. Morse filed an appeal arguing that the town’s residency restriction conflicts with the state hearing panel decision and with state law that establishes detailed procedures and penalties regarding “vicious” dogs, and that the owners’ due process rights were violated when the Town seized the dogs after the owners had complied with the state decision.

ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown remarked: “Basic notions of due process do not allow for the type of bait and switch tactics that occurred here. The Miserendinos complied in good faith with the hearing panel’s decision. For North Kingstown to participate in that decision and then upend it is, we believe, unfair, unseemly and illegal.”


ACLU Examines Inventory of Military Equipment in Rhode Island

With little accountability, Rhode Island police departments are stockpiling millions of dollars worth of military weapons and equipment under a controversial federal program. It’s time for transparency.

The ACLU of Rhode Island formally requested inventories of these items and found that the federal government has given Rhode Island law enforcement agencies a number of high-powered weapons and surveillance tools meant more for the battlefield than our backyards. Some of the items that we know about are highlighted in the graphic below, but there are more.

Communities have the right to know what the officers patrolling their streets have in their arsenals. We are asking Rhode Islanders to call on their legislators to hold a public hearing on the state’s participation in this program, and why departments are requesting this equipment in the first place.


Preventing The Next Ferguson

The deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York City, and the grand jury decisions not to press charges in these cases, have led the country to engage in a conversation about race, policing and justice.

It’s easy to believe that Rhode Island will never be at the center of a similar situation, but we know that’s simply not true--it has happened here before and is likely to happen again if changes are not made.

We know that Black and Hispanic drivers in Rhode Island are more likely than white drivers to be stopped and searched by police, even though they’re less likely to be found carrying contraband when they’re searched. Black Rhode Islanders are also much more likely to be arrested for marijuana use, even though black and white individuals use marijuana at roughly equal rates.

In fact, data reported by USA Today demonstrates an extreme racial disparity in arrest rates in many communities across Rhode Island. Using 2011-2012 arrest record data reported to the FBI by police departments nationwide, the article revealed that every one of 13 reviewed Rhode Island police departments disproportionately arrested black individuals at rates even greater than in Ferguson, Missouri. There, police arrested black individuals at a rate 2.8 times higher than non-blacks based on the city’s resident population. By contrast, the Rhode Island police departments that were analyzed arrested black individuals at rates up to 9.14 times higher.

Hillary Davis, ACLU of RI policy associate, noted: “If the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have taught us anything, it is how easily long-standing disparities can boil over into conflict. Rhode Island can no longer pretend that we are insulated from these issues. It is incumbent upon all police departments to understand and address these racial disparities now, before Rhode Island is the subject of nationwide discussion.”

The race issues Rhode Island faces extend beyond law enforcement alone: a black elementary school student in Rhode Island is six times as likely as a white elementary school student to be suspended from school. At the same time, Rhode Island has made it harder to change things through the electoral process by imposing a photo voter ID requirement that disproportionately affects minority voters.

The ACLU of Rhode Island will continue to work to promote transparency and accountability in police conduct, to stop the school-to-prison pipeline, and to end racial profiling in the state. You can help us tackle these issues by making your voice heard. Email policy@riaclu.org to learn how you can join in our work.


ACLU Testifies Before the Vehicle Value Commission

The ACLU has again urged the R.I. Vehicle Value Commission to stop using unrealistic vehicle valuation standards to determine car taxes, and to adopt a meaningful appeals process for Rhode Island car owners.  This year, Providence Mayor-elect Jorge Elorza and Governor-elect Gina Raimondo joined with the Affiliate in calling for changes.

The ACLU testified in December that the Commission’s exclusive use of the highest possible book value (the “clean retail value”) suggested by the National Automobile Dealers Association to set the value of cars for tax purposes is not a fair or realistic method for determining the value of most cars on the road. The ACLU also objected to the Commission’s appeal process, which only allows adjustments for clerical errors.

The RI ACLU has routinely testified before the Commission to raise concerns about its methodology and the appeals process. The ACLU at one point successfully sued the Commission for failing to consider other factors in adopting motor vehicle values, but the General Assembly revised the law.


ACLU Applauds Federal Court Rules Allowing Public To Take Notes

The ACLU of Rhode Island commended the federal judiciary for promoting greater transparency in court proceedings by revising its rules this month to allow court spectators to take notes without having to obtain prior approval. Instead, members of the public will routinely be able to take notes as long as they are not disruptive.

In written testimony submitted to the court in support of this revision, the ACLU noted: “There are many reasons that members of the public, just like members of the news media, might want to take notes of a court proceeding. The only compelling justification for limiting this is to prevent disruption, something that note-taking normally will not create.”

In seeking a change to the advance approval provision, the ACLU had argued that many people were unaware of the approval requirement until they appeared at the hearing or trial itself, when it was too late to seek approval; that some spectators were bound to be intimidated by any approval procedure; and that there were no standards in place as to when approval would be granted.

The revised rules also clarify the obligation of litigants to electronically file redacted court documents in the few designated circumstances when specific types of personal information, like Social Security Numbers, can be withheld from the public court record.

Contrary to the federal court’s emphasis on public access, the ACLU and other open government groups are pushing for changes to a new electronic filing system implemented by the state judiciary in November, which will lead to the unnecessary withholding of information that should be public.

The state judiciary rules often treat confidential records and documents that merely contain specific pieces of confidential information the same for purposes of public access. They also vaguely define “personal identifying information,” thus encouraging attorneys to over-classify documents as confidential.

The state’s electronic filing system also fails to provide the public remote access to documents, undermining what should be a major goal of such a system.


Year In Review: ACLU Student Chapters

Brown University ACLU: New Brown ACLU president Jahmour Givans said: “This year our plan was to divide topics we wanted to tackle into different subgroups. Around September our ‘Police Brutality Initiative’ group organized a discussion on ways to combat brutality, e.g. changing police culture or mandating body cameras. Near the end of the semester we hosted a screening of Fruitvale Station and continued a similar dialogue. The ‘Education’ subgroup is already in contact with Rhode Island Is Ready! to see how we can assist them going forward. Last our ‘Due Process’ group made contact with Regulate Rhode Island and we look forward to working with them to help support reforming the state's drug laws.”

Rogers Williams University School of Law ACLU: New Student Recruitment Event: Tabling and a short presentation at the beginning of the academic year to introduce students to the Student Chapter and recruit interested individuals into leadership positions.

2nd Amendment Debate: Co-sponsored with the RWU Federalist Society. Professor Carl T. Bogus and Former NRA President Sandra Froman discussed the historical framework of the 2nd Amendment as well as the lasting effects of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions on the subject.

Reproductive Rights Speaker: Planed Parenthood of Southern New England representative Jamie Rhodes spoke on recent Supreme Court cases involving the availability of reproductive rights and woman's health as well as the looming specter of the Rhode Island Constitutional Convention.

Reproductive Rights Student Panel: An organized student discussion on the state of reproductive health in Rhode Island and beyond, touching on subjects ranging from abstinence only education to the availability of HIV medication.


Help Us Year Round

A Payroll Deduction Plan
Please 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.

Your Eastside Marketplace Receipts
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!


Protecting Civil Liberties: Highlights of the RI ACLU’s Work in 2014

Over the past year, the ACLU of Rhode Island has worked tirelessly to promote and protect civil liberties. We have worked at the Statehouse, in the courts, and in communities across the state to respond to violations of civil liberties and protect the rights of all Rhode Islanders on a wide array of issues. Below you will find a small sampling of some of our successes in 2014.

FREEDOM OF SPEECH: An ACLU lawsuit successfully challenged the constitutionality of a state law criminalizing the circulation of anonymous political literature, including unsigned newspaper editorials.

PRIVACY: The ACLU favorably settled a lawsuit against the Department of Health that led to the incorporation of patient privacy safeguards in the implementation of an electronic Health Information Exchange.

IMMIGRANTS’ RIGHTS: In a ruling being cited across the country, a federal judge ruled in an ACLU suit that immigration officials and law enforcement cannot detain someone solely to investigate their immigration status without probable cause to make an arrest.

VOTING RIGHTS: The ACLU obtained a precedential court ruling allowing a lawsuit challenging the skewed impact of “prison gerrymandering” in Cranston electoral districts to proceed.

OPEN GOVERNMENT: A major report issued by ACCESS/RI, of which the ACLU is an active member, documented widespread non-compliance with the Access to Public Records Act by state and municipal bodies, and proposed a series of reforms to address the issue.

LGBT RIGHTS: Based on ACLU recommendations, the Department of Health adopted regulations that will make it easier for transgender individuals to change their gender on their birth certificate.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE: ACLU lobbying halted a dangerous bill that would have subjected prostitutes to the same criminal penalties as human traffickers.

CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION: The ACLU led a successful effort against passage of a ballot question calling for the convening of a constitutional convention that could have had a devastating impact on civil rights and civil liberties.

STUDENTS’ RIGHTS: After a years-long battle coordinated in large part by the ACLU, the General Assembly passed legislation establishing a moratorium on a discriminatory high stakes testing requirement for high school graduation.

WORKER RIGHTS: The General Assembly passed an ACLU bill barring employers from demanding access to employees’ private social media accounts.

EQUAL PROTECTION OF THE LAWS: In response to an ACLU complaint, the Rhode Island Judiciary entered into a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice expanding the availability of language interpreter services in court proceedings.