The League of Women Voters RI, Common Cause RI and the ACLU of RI have sent a letter to Rhode Island Senators expressing grave concerns over a proposed amendment to the 2021-2022 Senate rules that is scheduled for a floor vote on Tuesday. The amendment would allow committee chairs, in their sole discretion, to require witnesses to testify under oath before their committee. As a result, a person alleged to have testified untruthfully could be criminally charged with perjury.
In their letter, the organizations argue that this would have a chilling effect on free speech and the right to petition the government, undermining an important public forum and a fundamental principle of democracy. The letter states:
“We believe that requiring members of the public to testify before legislative committees under threat of criminal sanctions will have the inevitable effect of chilling the exercise of First Amendment rights. Some members of the public will understandably be inhibited in speaking before a legislative committee on issues of concern to them, knowing that unless they mark their words extremely carefully, they could potentially be accused of perjury and face criminal charges.”
“The First Amendment guarantees the public an opportunity to be heard and seek redress of grievances,” said Steven Brown, ACLU of RI executive director. “This rule, however unintentionally, would undermine that guarantee and the fundamental democratic process it is designed to promote.”
The letter further highlights that the amendment would give committee chairs complete discretion in deciding who must take an oath and when, a power that could be easily abused.
“It is more than a little ironic that the Rhode Island Senate has chosen to put a potential burden on members of the public who want to testify at Senate hearings, without holding a public hearing on the change,” said John Marion, Common Cause RI executive director. “They should go back to the drawing board with this idea.”
The letter goes on to raise a multitude of other important concerns:
“[S]ince ultimately it would be up to the majority or leaders of the body to decide which ‘perjurers’ warrant referral to the Attorney General, it is those members of the public who believe they are speaking ‘truth to power’ who are most likely to be in the crosshairs, or at least feel that they are. Either way, the effect is the same: discouraging public participation and passionate testimony.”
The letter also notes that the rule is not standard procedure of other public bodies:
“[O]ther state and municipal bodies, unless acting in a quasi-judicial capacity, do not require members of the public to testify under oath at public hearings. There is no reason for the Senate to do so either. Committee hearings on legislation are quintessential public forums, not courtroom proceedings. While we recognize that the General Assembly gave itself the statutory authority to adopt a rule like this over a half-century ago, there is simply no compelling rationale for implementing it now.”
“I have testified before legislative committees over several years, and have been received with respectful attention from legislators,” said Jane Koster, League of Women Voters of RI president. “However, I have at times been cautious, concerned about making a mistake when speaking. I am aware of many of my friends and league members who, for that reason, are not comfortable testifying in person. Passage of this rule would only discourage more of them from doing so, frightened of saying the wrong thing that might get them in trouble.”
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The letter concludes by urging the Senate to adopt a floor amendment removing this provision from the resolution.