By Steven Brown
Under the settlement agreement, the city acknowledged that police officers “unconstitutionally interfered” with Judith Reilly’s First Amendment rights in 2010 when they threatened to arrest her. At the time, she was distributing leaflets on a sidewalk adjacent to the auditorium where Cicilline was scheduled to give his annual “State of the City” address.
The fliers were critical of Cicilline’s reappointment of a City Plan Commission member.
The City agreed to pay Reilly $500 in damages for violation of her rights and $74,500 in costs and attorneys’ fees. There are questions that linger after the inevitable outcome of this lawsuit:
- How could police officers in the largest police department in the state of Rhode Island not know their conduct was wrong?
- Why would the city spend so much time and energy supporting the officers’ actions?
- Did anyone really believe, as the city argued, that they felt the need to force this lone protester to move across the street out of concern for keeping the sidewalk clear in case of the need for an emergency evacuation from the building?
That is highly doubtful. Instead, this simple case demonstrates the arrogance of power and ACLU founder Roger Baldwin’s adage that “no battle for civil liberties ever stays won.”
It was bad enough when the police silenced Ms. Reilly. But it was made much worse when the city stubbornly sought for three years to justify such a blatant violation of basic First Amendment rights.
The case is now settled, and the taxpayers of Providence have been forced to foot the bill. We can only hope that, if the police haven’t learned their lesson, residents won’t stand for any further abuses by the city of such a time-honored exercise of free speech rights.
Steven Brown is executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island.