Addressing a brazen attempt to chill freedom of speech, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today announced it has agreed to provide legal representation to the Warwick Post and the Warwick Beacon, both of which have been threatened with a defamation suit if they write stories about the contents of a public document.
The threat, by the Warwick School Department’s outgoing director of human resources Rosemary Healey, was made in response to the imminent release of a report prepared for the school committee, examining how Healey and other school administrators handled accusations of sexual misconduct made against a junior high school science teacher. The Attorney General recently ruled that the report, with certain information redacted, was a public record.
Even though Healey’s attorney, Jeffrey Sowa, acknowledged that Healey had not “been given the opportunity to substantively review the report,” he called the report “neither fair nor impartial” and “defamatory and malicious” in his letters to the publishers of the Post, a news website, and the Beacon. While further acknowledging that the Attorney General had ruled the document a public record, Sowa wrote that the publishers would “not be insulated from liability” for releasing information about the report, and that they should “cease and desist from publishing any matters relating to” Healey.
ACLU volunteer attorneys Neal McNamara and William Wynne from the law firm of Nixon Peabody have agreed to defend the newspapers if Healey follows through on her threat of legal action. Both papers are prepared to publicize the report, which is expected to be released sometime later today.
Warwick Post publisher and editor Robert Borkowski said today: “I’ve often been threatened with frivolous lawsuits aimed at scaring me away from reporting on public matters and records in 20 years of community journalism. This was the first time it directly threatened a business I owned, though, and it rattled me. But Attorney Sowa, who must surely be aware of First Amendment protections regarding reporting on public officials and documents, sought to bully Mr. Howell and me into walking away from our responsibility to give the parents of Warwick the information they need to assess the deeds of the people they entrust their children to each day. So when I thought about that, I was only rattled a little while. Fortunately for Warwick parents, Mr. Howell, and me, the ACLU of Rhode Island has agreed to offer us legal representation if Sowa and his client make good on their threat.”
John Howell, publisher of the Warwick Beacon, added: “Ever since the School Committee completed an investigation of how its administrators handled complaints about a teacher drawing phallic symbols on the arm of a junior high school female student last spring, the Warwick Beacon has sought to get a copy of that report. That request was denied by the committee and later by the city after it used its subpoena powers to get the school report. Fortunately, the Attorney General agrees the report is public. Given that ruling and our belief that the citizens of Warwick have the right to know how their school administrators acted, I intend to publish those findings.”
ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown stated: “A public employee’s threat to sue newspapers for doing their job – informing the public about the contents of a public document on a matter of enormous public interest – attacks the very heart of the freedom of the press. Over twenty years ago, the General Assembly passed a law to protect people from lawsuits that have a chilling effect on speech. As that statute, known as the anti-SLAPP law, points out, ‘full participation by persons and organizations and robust discussion of issues of public concern … are essential to the democratic process.’ The public document at issue here deserves a full airing, and the First Amendment was designed to allow that airing. We are prepared to vigorously defend the Post and the Beacon from this threatened abuse of the legal process.”