Court Rules Providence Police "Gag Rule" Unconstitutional

October 1, 2001 12:00 am

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Court Rules Providence Police “Gag Rule” Unconstitutional

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

PROVIDENCE, RI — In a clear victory for free speech, a U.S. District Judge struck down the Providence police department’s “gag rule” which prevented police officers from talking to the media without prior approval of the police chief, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island announced today.

The ACLU had argued — and Judge Mary Lisi agreed — that the gag rule was unconstitutional because it “chills” the First Amendment rights of police officers, is overly broad and vague and an unconstitutional “prior restraint” on speech.

In her opinion, Judge Lisi said that the Department’s “all-encompassing ban necessarily works to deprive Police Department employees of their First Amendment rights as citizens to comment on matters of public interest, thereby depriving the public of information regarding matters relevant to public health and safety.”

The ACLU’s lawsuit was filed in November 1999 on behalf of Providence Police Sergeant Rhonda Kessler, a 12-year veteran of the force. In September of that year, 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 news stories commenting 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, the Department’s then-Chief Urbano Prignano, Jr. issued her a one-day suspension without pay for violating the Department’s “gag rule” policy.

The ACLU lawsuit noted the important “public interest” in allowing police officers to contribute their comments on public issues. Three years ago, the ACLU was successful in challenging in federal court a similar policy held by the Providence Fire Department.

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