ACLU sues Police to allow anonymous political writing

ACLU sues Police to allow anonymous political writing

SMITHFIELD - The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the town's Police Department on behalf of a gay rights activist seeking to end prosecution of citizens who circulate anonymous criticisms of political candidates.

State law requires a signature on criticisms that could be injurious. But the Rhode Island ACLU and Smithfield resident Jonathan Blakeslee maintain that under precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Rhode Island statute is unconstitutional.

They filed suit in U.S. District Court Tuesday, asserting that they received no assurances the town would ignore the law, even though in 1995 the Supreme Court declared a similar statute in Ohio unconstitutional.

Police Chief Richard St. Sauveur Jr. and Town Solicitor Edmund L. Alves Jr. have said the town cannot pick and choose which laws to enforce.

The issue arose in January when the state attorney general's office dismissed misdemeanor charges of misconduct against Robert Horowitz, a campaign consultant for Democratic state Sen. Stephen Archambault, for allegedly distributing anonymous material designed to be politically injurious.

The complaint came from Republican James W. Archer, who last fall ran unsuccessfully for a House seat, and who complained that fliers, first-class mailings, and emails were misleading and defamatory.

The attorney general's office said it dismissed the charges because the wording of Rhode Island's law is "virtually identical" to that of the nullified Ohio statute.

Alves told The Valley Breeze & Observer at the time that to instruct police not to enforce an existing law was "absolute nonsense," and St. Sauveur said it's his department's job to enforce the law, "which we did."

The ACLU quoted Blakeslee this week as saying, "As a gay rights activist I participated in many activities in the '80s and '90s where identifying myself wasn't an option; there was a real threat of violence and discrimination from police, employers, neighbors and others.

A major reason for the First Amendment's protection of free speech, including anonymous speech, is to give a voice to the oppressed. Nobody should have to worry about going to prison for exercising that right."

Violation of the Rhode Island law is punishable by up to one year in prison or a $1,000 fine, or both.

The ACLU's cooperating lawyer representing Blakeslee, Mark Freel, said, "There is "a long-standing tradition in the country's legal and political history in favor of the right to comment anonymously on elections and candidates... The town of Smithfield needs to recognize and respect that right..."

The filing in federal court asserts that the Supreme Court's Ohio ruling held that anonymous communications are designed to "protect unpopular individuals from retaliation - and their ideas from suppression - at the hand of an intolerant society." It says that Blakeslee wants to continue to comment on social and political issues, including on a possible referendum on whether the state should call a constitutional convention.

The suit also names Atty. Gen. Peter Kilmartin, seeking a declaration that the law is unconstitutional, and asks for a temporary or permanent injunction preventing Smithfield from enforcing it.

The ACLU's filing describes the existing law as discriminatory because it prohibits messages that are critical of candidates, but not those that praise them.

Alves said this week that while he could not comment in detail because he had not seen the court filing, he stands by his original belief that police cannot ignore a law that remains on the books.

Archer, who had also not yet seen the filing, said a distinction should be made between anonymous criticisms that come from a private citizen and those from a political candidate.

He decried what he said is an excess of anonymous political mudslinging in town and said he hoped whatever decisions develop over the current issue don't encourage more of it.

Lawyer Freel said he was hopeful the matter could be resolved before this year's election campaign heats up in earnest.