ACLU Successfully Defends Rhode Island Resident in Free Speech Case

December 2, 2003 12:00 am

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PROVIDENCE, RI — The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today hailed the dismissal of criminal charges against Little Compton resident William Bullivant in a case that raised far-reaching free speech issues for state residents.

Bullivant had been convicted in Rhode Island District Court of obstructing a police officer by telephoning from one restaurant to another to advise that undercover police were checking for under-aged drinking by bar patrons by using a teenage “sting” to order alcohol without presenting an appropriate identification.

At a hearing before Superior Judge Melanie Wilk Thunberg, the ACLU argued that “no court elsewhere has ever held that the mere sharing of information, lawfully gained, can constitute a crime.” By the state’s reasoning, a radio station that broadcasts the fact that extra traffic patrols are being assigned to Interstate 95 on a given morning” violates the law. Quoting from a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the ACLU said in legal papers that “it would be quite remarkable to hold that speech by a law-abiding possessor of information can be suppressed in order to deter conduct by a non-law-abiding third party.”

Judge Thunberg did not address First Amendment issues in dismissing the charges against Bullivant. Instead, she concluded that his alleged conduct simply did not constitute “obstruction” for purposes of the statute.

In applauding Judge Thunberg’s dismissal of the case, ACLU volunteer attorney Charles Levesque said, “Arresting anyone who warns of potential danger would be like arresting Paul Revere for warning that the British were coming.” Levesque was joined by volunteer attorney Nicholas Trott Long in representing Bullivant at the hearing.

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