ACLU of Rhode Island Files Open Records Lawsuit Against North Smithfield

June 1, 2005 12:00 am

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NORTH SMITHFIELD, RI — For the third time in two years, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island has taken legal action against the town of North Smithfield, this time for a violation of the state’s open records law. Today’s lawsuit challenges a requirement by the town that any individual seeking access to an online database of public records must first provide personal information.

“It is unfortunate that town officials have refused to remove unnecessary obstacles in the way of people seeking access to public records,” said ACLU volunteer attorney Karen Davidson, who filed the lawsuit. “I am hopeful this lawsuit will vindicate the public’s important interest in government openness and in easily obtaining access to clearly public documents.”

The lawsuit was filed today in Superior Court on behalf of realtor Sam Butterfield, who unsuccessfully sought access to the town’s online database of tax assessment information without having to provide personal data. Under current requirements, anyone trying to access the database must first complete an online registration form, which requires the user to provide his or her name, address, e-mail address and a password.

The lawsuit states that the records Butterfield sought are clearly public records, and that the open records law specifically provides that public bodies “shall not require written requests for?documents prepared for or readily available to the public.” That provision was enacted in order to promote easy access to public records and to protect requesters’ confidentiality when identifying information was not necessary.

Three months ago, the ACLU wrote a letter to North Smithfield Town Administrator Robert Lowe pointing out the problems with the database’s registration requirement. Despite a follow-up letter, the ACLU never received a response. According to ACLU of Rhode Island Executive Director Steven Brown, when Butterfield encountered the same problem with the assessor records of neighboring Smithfield, which uses the same online system, that town immediately rescinded the registration requirement after hearing from the ACLU.

Today’s lawsuit charges that the North Smithfield database still requires completion of the registration form and the provision of personal data to access public information. The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring the town to provide access to the database without registration, and the imposition of fines and an award of attorneys’ fees pursuant to the open records statute.

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