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ACLU Files Court Brief in Support of Attorney General’s Right to Speak Out in Lead Paint Case

Posted: February 01, 2008|Category: Free Speech Open Government

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Supporting the public’s right to know, the Rhode Island ACLU has today filed a brief urging the R.I. Supreme Court to reverse the imposition of $15,000 in fines against Attorney General Patrick Lynch for public comments he made during the “lead paint public nuisance” case. The brief argues that the fines violated not only Lynch’s First Amendment right to free speech, but also the public’s right to hear the “views of attorneys concerning pending litigation in which the attorneys are involved.”

Lynch was twice fined by a Superior Court judge for allegedly violating the Rules of Professional Court and a “gag rule” the judge had issued against him in the controversial, high-profile case. The comments leading to Lynch being found in contempt of court and fined included a statement decrying what he called the lead paint’s “despicable” tactics in attempting to delay resolution of the case and for referring to the lead-paint makers as “those who would spin and twist the facts.” The 33-page ACLU brief, filed by volunteer attorney Amy R. Tabor, argues that the fines and “gag order” were imposed in clear violation of Lynch’s free speech rights and should be overturned.

Regarding the judge’s “gag order,” the ACLU brief argues that the First Amendment “protects the right to express and hear opinions at a meaningful time, place and manner. This includes the right to communicate about  … social and political lawsuits while those lawsuits are taking place. The Trial Court’s broad ban on ‘making any subjective characterizations of the defendants’ violates these rights.”

The brief further claims: “Despite the repeated and stridently histrionic protests by defense counsel that they and their clients were wrongfully, outrageously and irremediably publicly smeared with unjust accusations, the actual words spoken by the Attorney General, and the context within which they were spoken, simply do not bear out these claims. The Attorney General’s public statements were in fact limited in scope and quantity, and were far milder in nature than attorney speech that the U.S. Supreme Court has found innocuous, unlikely to undermine a jury’s impartiality, and fully entitled to First Amendment protection.”

The brief notes that the lead paint companies and their attorneys also repeatedly made public comments throughout the course of the trial, among other things describing as unfair the court proceedings that had been brought against them.

ACLU attorney Tabor said today: “The public had the right to hear all sides of the lead paint debate, and the public comments of the Attorney General were just one part of that much larger debate.   The publicity surrounding this trial, including the public comments made by attorneys for both sides, was well within the norm for a high profile trial in a nation such as ours that has, since its inception, valued free speech and an open a public judicial system.”

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