Activists protesting the Clear River Energy Center in Burrillville, Invenergy’s proposed $700 million gas and oil burning energy plant, have been showing up at many of the public speaking events attended by Governor Gina Raimondo and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse over the last few months. Raimondo is on record as fully supporting the power plant, Whitehouse has recently shifted from being for the plant to saying that he has to be neutral.
The protesters have been peaceful and respectful. There have been no efforts towards disrupting events. For the most part protesters silently hold signs declaring their views, only speaking up at the end of the event.
Recently, however, protesters have been excluded from attending these public events and come under increased scrutiny from various law enforcement agencies.
On March 4, Lorraine Savard, a retired public school teacher, went to the Rhode Island State House with her anti-power plant sign, where she expected to be able to hold her sign at the back of the room during the Cherry Blossom Festival, held in the State Room.
“I was allowed into the State Room on the condition that I not wave the sign,” Savard wrote of the incident, “I sat with my sign on the floor next to me. Overstuffed red couch toward the back is where I sat. Sign facing out. It did not take long for the girl to come take my sign and hide it out of sight. I left with my sign.”
Savard told me that “the girl” is the member of the governor’s staff who maintains an office in the State Room at the State House.
In response to an inquiry, Marie Aberger, press secretary for Governor Raimondo, said, “The Governor’s staff did not take a sign away from anyone in the State Room. We are fully supportive of the public’s right to free speech.”
Three days later URI Professor of Physics and occasional RI Future contributor Peter Nightingale attended a NORAD press conference in Quonsett, RI. He stood outside the event with his sign, discussing the proposed power plant with Congresspersons David Cicilline and James Langevin.
Nightingale reports, “Mike Miranda, private owner of NORAD, did get tired with me and my off-topic message. He asked me to leave the event, which he referred to as private. The press was there and my impression was that the public was invited, but I left.”
Nightingale wonders, “how much state and federal money is spent on shuttling our leadership to and from these ‘private’ events.”
The next day, at the Pawtucket Visitor’s Center in downtown Pawtucket, Lorraine Savard found herself unable to enter the building with her sign. “I was not allowed into the press conference this morning. I stood outside with my sign. The Visitors Center is a public place, paid for with federal funds. I’m incensed. I am a pacifist at heart and not assertive enough to have demanded entry. The police came out and asked if it was a peaceful demonstration. I alone was there. How peaceful can it get?”
In this case it was federal law enforcement officers asked Savard to leave the property.
Intrigued by these reports, I accompanied Savard to the State House State Room for the International [Working] Women’s Day Event where Governor Raimondo was going to speak. The woman who uses the State Room as her office did not take Savard’s sign, but did wag a finger and caution her against displaying it. A Capitol Police officer was stationed directly next to Lorraine for the entirety of the event as she stood at the very back of the room.
When the Governor spoke at East Providence High School on March 10, Savard was not allowed on school property. Further, even when she stood off school property, she found herself under scrutiny from two East Providence police officers.
“[I w]as not allowed on the school property,” writes Savard, “The Principal came out to tell me I would be escorted off school grounds if I did not comply. I stood at the end of the drive and was then approached by 2 EP police officers and told not to block the drive. Madam Gov waved at me when her car drove in. There was press there, I took advantage of her interview and the camera when I went back to my car. I lined up the sign to be in line with the camera. As I returned to my car with sign one of the EP police approached. I called to him and said I was leaving.”
Preventing protesters from attending and holding signs at public events is obviously a serious First Amendment issue, but in the cases above, it’s unclear that these events that were open to all or designed to be open to every member of the public. Determining whether a violation of the First Amendment has taken place depends on the facts of each particular incident and on the nature of the forum.
That said, you would hope that in an open and democratic society our leaders would be particularly sensitive to free speech issues and err on the side of allowing non-disruptive, peaceful expressions of critical views and opinions. When the public is disallowed from attending events we become victims of political theater and propaganda. Without true engagement the public will not be in possession of information that an engaged electorate needs.
Governor Raimondo and others, please take note: An informed, engaged electorate is only dangerous to a politician who is more interested in maintaining power than serving the public interest.