Updated March 26 at 7:54am

Local press file free speech suit


PROVIDENCE – The Rhode Island Press Association and the publisher of the Warwick Beacon filed suit on Wednesday challenging a state law that “has been interpreted to bar the media from running advertisements containing the names and photographs of public officials without their permission.”

The suit came following a specific incident at the Warwick Beacon. Warwick resident Robert Cote placed an ad in the newspaper criticizing City Council President Bruce Place and Mayor Scott Avedisian, and included their names and photos.

According to Beacon Publisher John Howell and a news release from the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Place threatened to sue the newspaper under the statute that says that anyone “whose name, portrait, or picture is used within the state for advertising purposes or for the purposes of trade without his or her written consent may bring action in the superior court.”

The ACLU contends that the statute was not meant to cover political advertising, but rather in relation to the sale of products or services, and that the statute is “unconstitutionally vague.”

“We found it extraordinary, given the rights afforded by the Constitution’s First Amendment, that an elected official should challenge the use of his name and photograph in an advertisement,” said Howell in a statement.

“If this were allowed to stand, it would seem that political advertising could become the subject of litigation that could stifle public discourse and give the candidate with the greatest resources the ability to suppress criticism,” Howell said.

Editor’s note: PBN Editor Mark S. Murphy is the current president of the Rhode Island Press Association.


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PBN is to be congratulated for supporting this important initiative.

Bruce Place, the Warwick City Council President apparently has not been following the "Hillary: The Movie" controversy that has turned campaigning on its head at the national level. This is where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a negative movie about Hillary Clinton, then running for President, could be funded by an independent group and shown during her national campaign.

Let's look at the fundamentals here: the Council President is expected to be a town moderator, a person bringing the people together to govern themselves. Council presidents should not take positions that shine a negative national spotlight on town affairs. Bruce Place is potentially doing just that. His action could hurt all of our efforts to attract jobs to Rhode Island.

We have just witnessed a true debacle in Iowa where a former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives was the target of a barrage of negative television advertisements organized by former campaign staffers of a former Governor of Massachusetts. Before the Hillary decision (actually called Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission) this blizzard of advertising would not have been possible. The strange thing is that the former Speaker of the House was an architect behind the Hillary decision. He became entangled in his own trap.

It is now out of the bag that Bruce Place, the city Council President threatened to sue the Warwick Beacon over a political advertisement for which he was the target. This has led the Rhode Island Press Association to seek federal court relief of the law that Bruce Place cited in his threat to sue the Warwick Beacon.

The Warwick City Council President is not helping to attract jobs to Rhode Island through his threat to the press. Overall, he has done a great job opening up the City Council to more participation by the citizens of Warwick. He should follow that path rather than to go after the press.

Richard Langseth

former Republican candidate for Mayor of Warwick

Thursday, January 5, 2012 | Report this
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