NEFAC Denounces Chafee Public Records Ruling, Calls on Legislature to Help Protect Public’s Right to Know

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT Justin Silverman | 774.244.2365 | justin@nefirstamendment.org

The New England First Amendment Coalition today denounced Monday’s Rhode Island Supreme Court ruling allowing police to withhold details of an investigation into a 2012 underage-drinking incident at the home of former Gov. Lincoln Chafee that involved his son, Caleb.

“This ruling flips the public records law on its head,” said Justin Silverman, NEFAC’s executive director. “It puts the burden on journalists to show government wrongdoing before they can access the documents needed to look for that wrongdoing.”

The case involves a May 28, 2012, house party Caleb Chafee hosted on a property owned by his father, who was governor at that time. Underage drinking occurred and one guest was later admitted to a local hospital to be treated for an alcohol-related illness.

The Rhode Island State Police investigated the highly publicized incident and produced 186 pages of investigative documents, including witness statements and reports by various officers. Caleb was charged with providing alcohol to minors. He pled no contest and was fined $500.

A Providence Journal reporter requested access to the police documents, citing Caleb’s plea and the public’s interest in knowing how the incident was investigated by the State Police Department, which reports directly to the governor. Such documents are considered to be public records in most circumstances under the state’s Access to Public Records Act, which requires a balancing of the public’s interest in disclosure with an individual’s right to privacy. The State Police denied the Journal’s document request twice, claiming that releasing the documents would constitute an unwarranted invasion of Caleb’s personal privacy.

A Superior Court justice hearing the dispute in 2012 found that Caleb’s privacy rights outweighed the public’s interest and that the Journal failed to show any evidence of “government impropriety” that would indicate otherwise. The Supreme Court yesterday upheld the lower court’s ruling, finding “negligible public interests” in disclosure and again putting the burden on the Journal to show government wrongdoing as justification for disclosure.

“When the release of sensitive personal information is at stake and the alleged public interest is rooted in government wrongdoing, we do not deal in potentialities,” Justice Gilbert V. Indeglia wrote in the Supreme Court’s ruling. “Rather, the seeker of information must provide some evidence that government negligence or impropriety was afoot.”

NEFAC is concerned about the ruling for the following reasons:

  • The Supreme Court did not acknowledge the public’s compelling interest in learning about its law enforcement and determining whether police acted with integrity and without preference to elected officials or their children. Instead, the court considered this interest to be “tenuous” and “negligible.”

  • The court required the record requester to provide evidence of governmental negligence or impropriety to overcome individual privacy interests, even though the Access to Public Records Act is often the only tool available to obtain such evidence.

  • With the court’s ruling, the Journal has now exhausted all its appeals and can no longer rely on the judicial system to obtain the police records.

NEFAC calls on the Rhode Island General Assembly to craft a legislative solution and offers its expertise and resources to help in that effort.

“The state Supreme Court’s decision requiring journalists to prove impropriety on the part of elected officials before accessing public documents is a blatant disregard for Rhode Island’s open records laws and a brazen disrespect of the First Amendment,” said Karen A. Bordeleau, a NEFAC board member and retired senior vice president and executive editor of the Journal. “This decision allows public officials and their families to hide any questionable activities, including criminal ones, and gives them an outrageous advantage over the average citizen.”

_______________________________________________________________________________

NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.

Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Donations can be made here. Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Boston Globe and Boston University.