ACLU Asks Court to Rule that Providence Protester was Illegally Barred from Leafleting
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Arguing that Providence police have “utterly and completely fail[ed] to establish any legitimate governmental interest—let alone a ‘significant’ one—to justify their conduct,” the Rhode Island ACLU has asked a federal court to rule that police engaged in a clear violation of the free speech rights of a local resident in 2010 when she was barred from peacefully leafleting on a public sidewalk in front of a building where then-Mayor David Cicilline was speaking. In a 47-page brief filed today by RI ACLU volunteer attorney Richard A. Sinapi, the ACLU also seeks a court order requiring city officials to appropriately train and supervise police officers on the First Amendment rights of individuals to peaceably distribute political flyers.
On February 2, 2010, Providence resident Judith Reilly was distributing flyers on a public sidewalk adjacent to the Providence Career and Technical Academy where Cicilline was scheduled to give his annual “State of the City” address. The flyers, prepared by the Olneyville Neighborhood Association, were critical of a Mayoral appointee. While leafleting, Reilly (along with another ONA supporter) was confronted by two police officers who ordered her to move across the street with her leaflets or else face arrest. She reluctantly moved, but then returned to the front of the auditorium, where she was confronted by two other officers who again ordered her to move. She complained that doing so would prevent her from handing flyers to her intended audience – people entering the auditorium – thus largely defeating the purpose of the activity. However, after again being threatened with arrest, she moved back across the street.
ACLU attorney Sinapi sued on Reilly’s behalf in November 2010, arguing that the officers’ conduct was a violation of Reilly’s “clearly established” free speech rights, and that, in light of the clear nature of the violation, the City and then-Police Chief Dean Esserman should also be held liable for failing to properly train police on the constitutional rights of protesters.
In court papers opposing the ACLU’s suit, the City’s major argument for ordering Reilly to move was a supposed concern for keeping the sidewalk clear in case of the need for an emergency evacuation from the building. However, the ACLU memo states: “The facts in the record clearly and undisputedly establish that any purported justification for the ban imposed by Defendants was nothing more than conjecture, speculation and surmise—if not a post hoc invention to justify the conduct once legally challenged.” As Sinapi notes in his brief, Reilly’s leafleting was taking place more than 25 feet from any exits, the sidewalk itself is extremely spacious, and it would have been easy enough for police to ask her to move in the unlikely event of an emergency. A copy of the ACLU’s memorandum of law is available on its website at www.riaclu.org.
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