What’s Happening Outside of the Statehouse: The Legislative Off-Season
Posted: November 01, 2019|
In the midst of a legislative session, when our workload becomes dominated by the 300-plus bills which our policy team lobbies on every year, it’s hard to remember that there are times outside of the scope of the legislative cycle. But, of course, a substantial amount of our work occurs beyond the months of January through July.
During the legislative off-season, the strength of our advocacy and our policy work does not diminish. Instead, it continues in different arenas: school committees, municipal councils, and state regulatory agencies all operate on a year-round basis, and are constantly passing policies, ordinances, and regulations that impact civil liberties. Although monitoring these bodies is a core aspect of our work, the second half of the year allows us to focus more on these different governmental decision-makers, sometimes within the context of recently enacted bills.
Before the rush of the legislative session begins again in two months, it’s worth taking a moment to highlight the wide variety of work that the ACLU of Rhode Island has recently performed outside the State House. Here are some examples:
• Continuing our extensive examination of disparities in school discipline, we conducted a thorough analysis of two years of data from the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years for suspension rates of students of color and students with disabilities in the Providence school system. As it turns out – spoiler alert – disparities persist, even in the years following 2016 law which was intended to mitigate the harmful effects of over-disciplining vulnerable groups of students. We sent a letter to Acting-Superintendent Gallo and the Providence School Board, encouraging them to take action and thoughtfully restrict the instances with which suspensions can be doled out to students.
• The ACLU raised numerous concerns about a bill that passed last session establishing “threat assessment teams” in each public school in Rhode Island. After reviewing the model policy that was drafted for these teams, we made several suggestions to every school committee for revisions to the policy which would better protect the civil liberties of students.
• We worked with the South Kingstown School Committee in support of their adoption of a policy designed to make immigrant students feel safe and prevent school administrators’ collaboration with ICE.
• We successfully opposed an ordinance proposed by the Narragansett Town Council that would have placed onerous restrictions on the ability of residents to provide public comment at town council meetings.
• We encouraged the Providence School District to reconsider a misguided policy restricting parents from volunteering at their child’s school based on irrelevant past criminal record histories.
• We submitted testimony at the fall meeting of the Rhode Island Online Data Transparency and Privacy Protection Commission, and we expressed our significant concerns about a piece of potential legislation that could open the doors for large tech companies to monetize and exploit students’ data.
• In response to our concerns, the Lincoln Town Council is significantly revising a legally dubious ordinance that had prohibited the cultivation of medical marijuana by patients and caregivers in the town.
• Our threat of a lawsuit persuaded the Woonsocket Police Department to release its internal records of police misconduct investigations which the department had initially refused to hand over.
• We favorably settled several important lawsuits, including a First Amendment lawsuit concerning the state’s discrimination against non-fiction writers, and a sex discrimination case in which a female employee of the now-closed Newport Grand Casino was being paid less than a younger male colleague performing the same job duties.
• In response to a questionable lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the newly-enacted Reproductive Privacy Act, we filed a court brief in its defense.
• We filed a class action lawsuit against the Rhode Island Department of Corrections challenging the use of solitary confinement for prisoners with serious and persistent mental illness.
Although this is a small percentage of the work that the ACLU of Rhode Island performs during the legislative off-season, we hope it provides an overview of the numerous ways that civil liberties touch the lives of Rhode Island residents, and why we have to remain vigilant in our defense of them.