Free Speech Issues The ACLU of Rhode Island is Involved With - Court Cases, Legislation, News Releases


Protecting Civil Liberties in Rhode Island for Over 50 Years


Free Speech

Protecting the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment has always been in the forefront of the ACLU’s mission. The ACLU of Rhode Island was founded over 50 years ago largely in response to widespread government efforts to censor books, films, and theater.  Today, the ACLU routinely defends the right of citizens to exercise their freedom of speech, of the press, of association, and of petition and protest, no matter how unpopular their opinions may be.

Free Speech in the News

  • Aug, 16, 2017: Judge Dismisses Charges Against Narragansett Residents Under Unconstitutional Housing Ordinance
  • Aug, 03, 2017: Judge Issues Restraining Order Against Cranston Anti-Panhandling Ordinance
  • Jul, 18, 2017: ACLU Again Sues Cranston Over Anti-Panhandling Ordinance

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Free Speech Related Court Cases

2017: RIHAP v. Cranston
Category: Active Case    Discrimination    Rights of the Poor    Free Speech    

About This Case:
This is a federal lawsuit against the City of Cranston over an anti-panhandling ordinance enacted by the City Council in 2017.  The suit was filed on behalf of Francis White, Jr., who is disabled and formerly homeless, as well as the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project (RIHAP) and two Cranston residents – Karen Rosenberg and Deborah Flitman.  The suit argues that the ordinance violates the First Amendment right of individuals to solicit donations and distribute literature on Cranston roadways.   In April 2016, the ACLU favorably settled a lawsuit against Cranston over a similar ordinance that barred the solicitation of donations from motorists. In that settlement, the City acknowledged that the ordinance violated the First Amendment and halted its enforcement. The 2017 ordinance makes several cosmetic revisions to the original in an attempt to pass constitutional muster.

Current Status:
In August 2017, Judge William Smith issued a temporary restraining order halting enforcement of the ordinance.

ACLU Cooperating Attorney:
Lynette Labinger

Supporting Documents
2017: Hunter v. City of Cranston
Category: Active Case    Due Process    Free Speech    

About This Case:
This is a federal lawsuit against the City of Cranston, challenging its selective enforcement of an ordinance that bars the placement of commercial advertisements on city property. The suit was filed on behalf of Stephen Hunter, an attorney who was threatened with fines if he did not take down signs advertising his business that he had posted at various intersections throughout the city – even though there were dozens of other advertising signs posted at the same locations which were left untouched and not cited.

Current Status:
Lawsuit filed in May 2017.

ACLU Cooperating Attorney:
Richard A. Sinapi

Supporting Documents

Free Speech Related Legislation

Student Free Press (H 5550, S 600) PASSED
Category: 2017    Free Speech    

This spring, the ACLU testified in support of important legislation introduced by Senator Gayle Goldin (S 600) and Representative Jeremiah O'Grady (H 5550), which would recognize the importance of encouraging student journalism and guaranteeing to students certain basic rights to freedom of the press.

This bill would reverse an unfortunate U.S. Supreme Court decision that had a chilling effect on student journalism throughout the country. Under this bill, a free and responsible student press would be able to flourish in Rhode Island, as it has in 12 other states that have adopted similar laws.

On the last day of the General Assembly session, both the House and the Senate passed this legislation. Governor Raimondo signed it into law during the month of July.

“Revenge Porn” (H 5304, S 401, S 765)
Category: 2017    Free Speech    

The ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary Committees regarding the Attorney General’s so-called revenge porn legislation (H 5304, S 401), which, we noted in our testimony, required neither revenge nor porn to subject a person to criminal penalties. The legislation would make it a crime to electronically transmit nude or sexually explicit images without the person’s consent. In May, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard the Governor's version of the revenge porn bill (S 765) which addresses some of the basic constitutional concerns of the AG's bill. 

The Media Coalition and the R.I. Press Association also opposed the bill. Publishing some of the photos from Abu Ghraib or, on a less grave note, pictures of Anthony Weiner’s too-exposed body part could be criminal under this bill. That is why Governor Gina Raimondo vetoed this legislation last year and, the ACLU hopes, will veto it again if it is not amended to address the legitimate concerns raised by civil liberties advocates and the media. Nonetheless, in March, the House passed the bill, with only Reps. Edie Ajello and Jason Knight dissenting.

In March, the House passed this legislation and referred it to the Senate Judiciary Committee. However, due to the abrupt General Assembly recess no action was taken on this legislation.