Below is an op/ed written for The Providence Journal by NEFAC board members Karen Bordeleau and Tim White, and Justin Silverman, the coalition’s executive director. The column can also be read here.
A recent Rhode Island Supreme Court ruling will have government watchdogs scratching their heads and chasing their tails.
In a state infamous for crooked politics and government mistrust, the court found that individual privacy outweighed the public’s interest in monitoring politicians, an interest the court called “negligible,” “tenuous” and “insufficient.” Worse, the court put a burden on the public to show evidence of government wrongdoing before it could obtain documents that may show that wrongdoing.
The ruling is the result of a four-year effort by The Providence Journal to obtain state police records pertaining to a 2012 house party at a property owned by then-Gov. Lincoln Chafee and hosted by his son, Caleb, who was 18 at the time. Underage drinking occurred at the party, and a guest was later admitted to a local hospital to be treated for an alcohol-related illness.
Rhode Island State Police — who reported directly to the governor and provided his daily security — investigated the highly publicized incident and produced 186 pages of documents, including witness statements and reports by various officers. The Journal requested those records through the state’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA) so its readers could better understand the investigation and determine whether officials acted with integrity despite the party’s location and those involved. State police denied the request twice, claiming that disclosure would result in an “unwarranted invasion” of Caleb’s privacy.
In upholding the decision to keep the investigation reports secret, Justice Gilbert V. Indeglia wrote: “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. Rather, the seeker of information must provide some evidence that government negligence or impropriety was afoot.”
Because public records are often required before wrongdoing by government officials can be unearthed, this decision is utterly backwards. Consider the effect this ruling may have had on previous cases of misconduct by public figures:
- In 1984, police investigated an altercation involving a contractor who was suspected of sleeping with another man’s estranged wife. Without providing evidence that an elected official was somehow involved, today’s court may ask, why should the investigation records be released? The answer, as we now know, is because the man accused of the assault was former Providence Mayor Vincent Cianci.
- In 2012, a woman was in a car chase with a man who later robbed her and tried to persuade a colleague to take the stolen cash. Couldn’t the police report now be withheld out of respect for the victim’s privacy? Had it been withheld, the public may have never known that the man who chased and robbed the woman was John Whiting, a North Providence police chief.
- In 2014, an 18-year-old high school student and her teacher were sending each other sexually explicit text messages. At the time, these texts weren’t publicly known and police determined that no crime had been committed. Had a court placed the student’s privacy over the interest in obtaining police documents detailing the teacher’s behavior, the public may have never learned that her teacher was Matthew Guerra, a candidate for the state’s General Assembly.
Government officials need to be monitored, and that monitoring often relies on public documents obtained by regular taxpayers, members of the media and others interested in government accountability. These records, such as police reports, helped inform Rhode Island residents of the actions of Mayor Cianci (racketeering), Gov. Edward DiPrete (corruption, bribery and extortion), House Speaker Gordon Fox (bribery), Sen. Stephen Alves (drunken driving), Sen. Patrick T. McDonald (embezzlement), Rep. Leonidis Medina (unlawful appropriation of funds), Central Falls Mayor Charles Moreau (corruption), Sen. John B. McCauley, Jr. (tax fraud), Sen. Christopher Maselli (bank fraud), Rep. Robert Watson (marijuana possession and driving under the influence), Pawtucket Mayor Brian Sarault (extortion), and many others.
While individual privacy is a legitimate concern and should often be protected, it must not outweigh the interest in monitoring public officials through APRA. If it does, Rhode Island’s dark legacy of corruption will continue to fester. Access to government records is vital to the state’s watchdogs, and this ruling is likely to have them running around in circles. That’s a blow to the Fourth Estate, which exists because the other three institutions can’t be trusted to conduct the public’s business on their own.
Especially in Rhode Island.
Karen Bordeleau is a board member of the New England First Amendment Coalition and a retired senior vice president and executive editor of The Providence Journal. Tim White is a NEFAC board member and an investigative reporter for WPRI/WNAC-TV. Justin Silverman is NEFAC’s executive director.
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.