In response to a lawsuit the ACLU filed in January, the General Assembly has favorably amended a state law that had been interpreted to bar the media from running advertisements containing the names and photographs of public officials without their permission. As a result, the ACLU is voluntarily dismissing the lawsuit as moot.
Until the statute was amended, it authorized any person “whose name, portrait, or picture is used within the state for advertising purposes” to sue for damages. The ACLU suit had been filed on behalf of the Rhode Island Press Association and the publisher of the Warwick Beacon, which had been threatened with a suit for damages for violating that statute. The new law makes clear that the statutory ban applies only to purely commercial advertising, and not political or other advertisements that address issues of public concern. The ACLU lawsuit, filed by volunteer attorney Mark Freel, had argued that the pre-amended version of the statute “had an impermissible and unconstitutional chilling effect on free speech and on the free exchange of ideas” in violation of the First Amendment.
Last September, Warwick resident Robert Cote, who has headed up the so-called “Car Tax Revolt,” took out an ad in the Warwick Beacon that criticized City Council members by name and included photos of them. In response, a Councilman advised the Beacon that he was considering suing the newspaper under the statute for running his name and photo without his permission. The Beacon contacted the ACLU, which agreed to challenge the constitutionality of the statute. After the suit was filed, Rep. Joseph McNamara and Sen. Michael McCaffrey introduced the legislation to clarify the statute and prevent its use against political advertising. The ACLU and the Beacon testified in support of the bill. RIACLU executive director Steven Brown said today: “We are pleased that the General Assembly took action to resolve this lawsuit. We believe the prior statute was blatantly unconstitutional, and the new law has saved the taxpayers thousands of dollars which would have otherwise been spent trying to defend an indefensible law.”