ACLU Claims New Providence Lobbying Ordinance Will Chill Free Speech Activity

Posted: Mar, 21, 2011

A Providence ordinance signed into law today by Mayor Angel Taveras could have a significant and adverse impact on the advocacy activities of local community and non-profit organizations, the RI ACLU today claimed. The ACLU called the Act, “An Ordinance Relative to Lobbyist Registration,” well-intentioned, but said its far-reaching scope “will deter and chill robust community advocacy.”

The ordinance establishes a broad “lobbying registration” requirement on organizations, compensated individuals and volunteers who interact with city officials. Under the ordinance, any person deemed a “lobbyist” would need to register in advance with the City, obtain a photo ID and wear it any time while at City Hall or at other city offices, pay an annual registration fee of $25 (or $150 for larger organizations), and file quarterly lobbying reports. These individuals would also face potentially stiff fines for violations of the ordinance.

The ordinance applies to virtually any communication to just about any official of city government, including the Mayor, his staff, a City Council member, the police chief or the school superintendent. Further, in light of the broad definition of “lobbyist,” a large percentage of community groups in the City and their staff and volunteers could be subject to the requirements of this ordinance and its penalties.

Among the examples cited by the ACLU of the ordinance’s breadth:

RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown said today: “Despite the good and sincere intentions  underlying  this  proposal,  we  believe  it  will  deter  and  chill  robust  community advocacy. We understand the City’s interest in promoting transparency in government, but this ordinance is not a proper way to achieve that goal.” Brown said that the ACLU would be talking with non-profit organizations affected by the ordinance’s passage about the possibility of mounting a legal challenge.

When the ACLU first learned about the ordinance last month, the organization sent a letter to the sponsor, Councilor John Igliozzi, raising various concerns about it. The ACLU heard nothing further until reading media reports this weekend of the ordinance’s final passage.