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Testing the law
Beacon, RIPA test law barring photos of officials in ads

The Rhode Island Press Association and Beacon Communications, the publisher of the Warwick Beacon, Cranston Herald and the Johnston Sun Rise, are scheduled to file a lawsuit 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 lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court on the groups’ behalf by the Rhode Island ACLU, argues that the statute “has an impermissible and unconstitutional chilling effect on free speech and on the free exchange of ideas” in violation of the First Amendment.

Last September, Warwick resident Robert Cote, who has headed up the “Car Tax Revolt,” took out an ad in the Beacon that criticized City Council members by name and included photos of them. In response, Council President Bruce Place advised the Beacon of the law and that he was considering suing the newspaper under the statute for running his name and photo without his permission. Notwithstanding, the Beacon published a few more similar ads purchased by Cote, but changed at least one of them in response to the threat.

The statute cited by the Councilman reads:

"Any person 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 an action in the superior court against the person so using his or her name, portrait, or picture to prevent and restrain the use thereof, and may recover damages for any injuries sustained by reason of such use. If the defendant shall have knowingly used the person’s name, portrait, or picture in such manner as is prohibited or unlawful, the court, in its discretion, may award the plaintiff treble the amount of the damages sustained by him or her."

The lawsuit, filed by RI ACLU volunteer attorney Mark Freel, makes two arguments: first, that the statute was not meant to cover political advertising, but was “instead intended to prevent the unauthorized use of a person’s name or likeness in connection with the sale of products or services in commerce,” and to the extent it can be read otherwise, the statute is unconstitutionally vague and has a chilling effect on publishers’ free speech rights. In the alternative, the suit argues that if the statute does encompass political advertising, it is unconstitutionally overbroad by restricting political speech on matters of public concern. The suit seeks a court order declaring the statute unconstitutional on its face or as applied to political advertising.

“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 Warwick Beacon Publisher John Howell. “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.”

“Political speech has a tradition going back to the founding of the country," said Mark S. Murphy, president of the Rhode Island Press Association and editor of Providence Business News. "That any member of government would try to use the law to abridge that speech shows exactly why it should be protected and why the press association has joined this fight."

Added ACLU attorney Freel: “The vagueness of this statute has allowed the subjects of legitimate opposition ads on public issues to use the threat of liability to discourage newspapers in Rhode Island from accepting such ads. Interpreting the statute to encompass political advertising has an unacceptable and unconstitutional impact on public and political discourse in this state. We hope the courts will reject such a damaging use of this statute.”


Comments
2 comments on this item

Bruce Place went too far with his threat to sue the Beacon. Apparently, he 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 shown during the national campaign.

Let's look at the fundamentals: Mr. Place 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.

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.

Here in Warwick things are on a much smaller scale. But the Car Tax Revolt has gained statewide attention in its efforts to reduce the size of government. There has been some national exposure. It is now out of the bag that Bruce Place threatened to sue the 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 Mr. Place cited in his threat to sue the Warwick Beacon.

Considering how much the presidential candidates are taking advantage of the Hillary decision it is my guess that it won't be long before Bruce Place, the Warwick Beacon, and the Car Tax Revolt controversy reaches a wider audience. Keep your eye on the news.

Councilman Place just shows us why he should not be President of the City Council or a Councilman in general. Ward 2 needs someone new to run for his sit. Maybe I should take out a Help Wanted ad for a City Council member need for two year, as a part time bases. Salary $10,000 per year plus healthcare. Also needed for Ward 1, Ward 3, Ward 5 ,Ward 6 and Ward 8.

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