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The New England First Amendment Coalition and a group of fellow open government advocates recently called for changes in Rhode Island legislation that, as currently written, would “be a significant blow to transparency and accountability.”
Amendments to H 5891 and S 0804 offer some protection to the public’s right to know, the groups wrote in a June 10 letter to members of the state General Assembly. But they don’t go far enough.
Among the groups’ primary concerns is the ability of public bodies to meet completely online at any time.
“We believe this, the most permissive of all positions, will be abused by some public bodies,” according to the letter. “Fully online meetings lack a degree of democratic accountability.”
If a city council is scheduled to take up a controversial issue, the groups explained, it may choose to hold the meeting completely online. It will be impossible for reporters to ask follow-up questions and constituencies will not be able to gather together in solidarity to make their collective voice louder in support of a particular cause.
In addition to NEFAC, the letter was signed by representatives from the ACLU of Rhode Island, the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island, Access/RI, the Rhode Island Press Association, Common Cause Rhode Island and the University of Rhode Island.
“Rhode Island should take a graduated approach that focuses on maintaining the good that has come from moving meetings online — the increased public participation — while protecting the public interest by closely replicating the protections available to the public in the pre-pandemic Open Meeting Act,” the groups wrote.
NEFAC is the region’s leading advocate for the First Amendment and the public’s right to know about government. Learn more about how NEFAC is protecting the free press and open government in New England.
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. Please make a donation here.
Major Supporters of NEFAC include Hearst Connecticut Media Group, Paul and Ann Sagan, The Boston Globe, WBUR, Boston University and the Robertson Foundation.