The Rhode Island ACLU today applauded the General Assembly for approving a series of civil liberties-protective bills over the veto of Governor Donald Carcieri. The three pieces of legislation – covering the right to privacy, civil rights, and gay rights – were enacted into law yesterday by overwhelming margins.

The first bill, sponsored by Sen. Frank Ciccone and Rep. Charlene Lima, protects the privacy of students as well as users of the state’s E-ZPass toll system by restricting the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology.

Originally developed to track cattle and commerce, RFID allows a person’s identity and movement to be monitored electronically. The new law bars public schools from tracking students with this technology. This is far from an abstract issue in Rhode Island. In 2008, the Middletown school district experimented with a program that placed RFID chips on the backpacks of elementary school children, purportedly to make sure they got on the right school bus.

In vetoing the legislation in November, the Governor claimed that RFID could be helpful in the event of “a natural disaster” or a terrorist attack. However, the ACLU argued that use of RFID on students was more likely to put children in danger than to protect them, since any individual with an easily-purchased RFID reader could obtain the identity and location of students who were carrying RFID tags. The ACLU also objected that use of the technology on students treated them like the cattle for which the technology was originally designed.

The ACLU’s call for overriding the bill was supported in a letter to legislators by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit civil liberties organization based in San Francisco that seeks to protect rights in the digital world. Rhode Island’s law is the first in the country to protect students’ privacy from this potentially invasive technology.

The state’s E-ZPass toll system on the Pell Bridge also uses RFID, and the new law ensures that toll information collected this way will be kept confidential. In other states without privacy safeguards, parties have subpoenaed E-ZPass tracking information in matters like divorce cases to try to prove the whereabouts of alleged cheating spouses.

The second ACLU-promoted bill enacted by the legislature yesterday makes clear that plaintiffs have three years, rather than one year, to sue under the Rhode Island Civil Rights Act, a major law banning discrimination in employment and other settings. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Donna Walsh and Sen. Daniel Connors, was in response to a R.I. Supreme Court ruling, decided by a 3-2 vote, that concluded that complainants have only one year to bring suit under that law, even though the default statute of limitations for virtually all other personal injury actions in Rhode Island is three years. In vetoing the bill, the Governor called the three-year proviso “unreasonable” to the business community. Until yesterday’s vote overturned the Supreme Court ruling, a victim of discrimination had a shorter time to file suit than just about any other type of claimant, including a person who was a victim of a dog bite (three years) or of property damage to his or her car (ten years).

The ACLU and numerous civil rights groups had pushed for passage of the bill, noting that a longer, rather than shorter, statute of limitations is critical in many discrimination cases. It often takes time for an employee or job applicant to realize that adverse action taken against him or her may have been based on an illegal, discriminatory factor such as race or sex, and to then find an attorney to represent them.

Finally, in addressing the Governor’s most highly-publicized veto of the 2009 session, the General Assembly approved a bill allowing domestic partners to claim the bodies of, and make funeral arrangements for, their loved ones. The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Rhoda Perry and Rep. David Segal, was prompted by an incident where a Providence man was unable to claim the body of his partner for 17 years because they were not married. In a veto that was mocked across the country, the Governor said that the bill marked “a disturbing trend … of the incremental erosion of the principles surrounding traditional marriage.”

The RI ACLU commended the General Assembly leadership for including these three bills in the small override session when choosing from the many vetoed by the Governor last year.