ACLU Sues On Behalf Of Providence Protester Illegally Threatened With Arrest

November 12, 2010 12:00 am

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The Rhode Island ACLU has today filed a federal lawsuit charging Providence police with violating the free speech rights of a local resident in February when she was stopped from peacefully leafleting on a public sidewalk in front of a building where Mayor Cicilline was speaking.

On February 2nd, Providence resident Judith Reilly was distributing flyers on a public sidewalk adjacent to the Providence Career and Technical Academy where Mayor David 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.

Two weeks later, Reilly filed a complaint with the police department’s internal affairs division, complaining about the police officers’ actions. Over a month later, she received an email from internal affairs inspector Francisco Colon expressing uncertainty as to whether their actions even constituted misconduct. This prompted a letter to Colon from the ACLU, pointing out that the U.S. Supreme Court had clearly established more than seventy years ago the First Amendment right of individuals to peacefully distribute literature on public sidewalks. Even though investigations of complaints of police misconduct are supposed to be completed within 30 days, Reilly has to this day heard nothing further from the internal affairs division.

The lawsuit, filed by RI ACLU volunteer attorney Richard A. Sinapi, argues that the officers’ conduct was a violation of Reilly’s “clearly established” free speech rights. The suit further argues that, in light of the clear nature of the violation, the City and Police Chief Dean Esserman should be held liable for failing “to properly select, train, instruct, supervise and/or discipline officers in the City Police Department… relative to the constitutionally protected right of people to peaceably distribute political flyers on public sidewalks and in other public forums.”

Among other things, the lawsuit seeks a court order preventing further interference with Reilly’s exercise of her free speech rights and directing city officials to properly train officers on the rights of people to distribute political flyers on public sidewalks.

RI ACLU attorney Sinapi said today: “Leafletting on public sidewalks is a simple, inexpensive and time-honored way for people to share their political and social views with other members of the public. It is intolerable and inexcusable for a large municipal police department to be either ignorant or disdainful of such an important First Amendment right. We are hopeful that this lawsuit will ensure that such a violation never happens again.”

Plaintiff Reilly added: “I hope that we can prevent similar violations of people’s rights in the future, but if we can’t, I want to make sure that no Providence police officers can claim ignorance of the Constitution they have sworn to defend.”

RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown said: “The blatant violation of Ms. Reilly’s rights by the police is extremely troubling. But just as troubling is the utter failure of the department’s internal affairs division to follow its own procedures and even investigate the matter. It only lends credence to those in the community who have argued for years that police simply cannot be trusted to investigate themselves.”

A copy of the ACLU’s complaint is available on its website at

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