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ACLU says Providence cannot selectively enforce residential picketing ordinance, urges repeal



The City of Providence cannot pick and choose when to apply an ordinance against residential picketing says Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island. If the City is going to allow protesters to picket outside the home of convicted child rapist Richard Gardner, they will have to allow similar protests outside the homes of, for example, a public official or a slum landlord.

Brown sent a letter expressing this view to Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and other Providence public officials on Saturday regarding the protests that have been occurring in front of the home of Richard Gardner, recently released from prison in Massachusetts.

Brown notes that the protests have taken place without interference from the Providence Police Department officers that are present on the scene, despite a City ordinance that bans targeted residential picketing. The ACLU has long opposed laws that ban residential picketing on constitutional grounds, but the  constitutionality of such laws have been upheld by both the United States and Rhode Island Supreme Courts.

“I know I do not have to provide you the background of those protests,” writes Brown, “as comments you [Mayor Elorza] were reported to have made at a community meeting immediately preceding the first such gathering last Wednesday – that Gardner ‘has given up his right to be here in the community’ – have undoubtedly helped fuel these angry gatherings in front of his home…

“With your knowledge and approval… the police have allowed these gatherings to take place in front of Mr Gardner’s home without interference,” continues Brown. “While the ACLU strongly disapproves of these picketers’ message, we agree that (assuming, of course, they are not engaging in other violations of the law such as trespass, disorderly conduct, or vandalism), they should have the right to peacefully congregate in front of his home to express their views.”

The City, said Brown, cannot tacitly approve of the protests outside the residence of Richard Gardner and then later enforce the ordinance against other protesters. The City does “not have the right to pick and choose when it will enforce the ordinance depending on what the picketing happens to be about. As a result, groups that may have been deterred by the ordinance from engaging in residential picketing in Providence in the past – such as political groups wishing to protest in front of the house of a public official, or consumer groups desiring to shame a slum landlord in front of his home – will, we assume, be afforded the same rights and privileges to engage in residential protests that those picketing in Washington Park have been afforded, notwithstanding Sec. 16-13.1.”

Brown went on to urge Mayor Elorza to propose a repeal of the ordinance against residential picketing at the earliest opportunity.

The ACLU letter was also sent to Providence Commissioner of Public Safety Steven Paré, Police Chief Hugh Clements, City Solicitor Jeffrey Dana and City Council President David Salvatore.

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You can read the ACLU letter here

See coverage on Richard Gardner from Providence Journal reporter Madeleine List:

Convicted child rapist’s move to Providence has residents on edge

Rhode Island neighbors protest outside child rapist’s home

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About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.