ACLU Challenges Police "Gag Rule" in Rhode Island

November 14, 2000 12:00 am

ACLU Affiliate
Rhode Island ACLU
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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

PROVIDENCE, RI–The ACLU of Rhode Island today filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a Providence Police Department “gag rule” which prevents police officers from talking to the media without approval of the police chief.

“Do we really want police officers who cannot speak to the public or answer questions unless they first obtain express permission from the Chief?” asked ACLU volunteer attorney John W. Dineen, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Providence police sergeant Rhonda Kessler, an eleven-year veteran of the force.

“Under the First Amendment, there must be healthy communication between police officers and the people they serve. We should not want, or expect, officers to be Buckingham Palace guards” he added.

The ACLU lawsuit argues that the gag rule “chills” the First Amendment rights of police officers, and is overbroad, vague and arbitrarily applied.

The case arose in September 1999, when Officer Kessler was mentioned by name in news stories after a family criticized the manner in which she handled the investigation of a sexual assault. Various police officials were quoted in the stories, which included comments about Kessler’s performance.

In response, Kessler spoke to a Providence Journal reporter, pointing out that she had not been disciplined for her actions and that, as a woman, she would not belittle a complaining victim’s allegations in a sexual assault case. Two weeks after being quoted to that effect, Chief Prignano issued her a one-day suspension without pay for violating the Department’s “gag rule” policy.

The ACLU lawsuit notes the important “public interest” in allowing police officers to contribute their comments on public issues. The ACLU further argues that the application of the “gag rule” is “arbitrary, capricious and unpredictable,” and gives “unlimited discretion” to the Chief to grant or deny officers permission to speak to the media.

The ACLU lawsuit seeks a court order striking down the policy, the award of damages to Kessler for her unconstitutional suspension and the deletion of any references to the suspension from her personnel file. Two years ago, the ACLU successfully challenged in federal court a similar policy in effect at the Providence Fire Department. A news release on that case is online at archive.aclu.org/news/n052197c.html.

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