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Bill punishing 'frivolous' ethics complaints becomes law in Rhode Island

By David Hudson
First Amendment Center

A Rhode Island bill that empowers the state Ethics Commission to punish individuals who file "frivolous" ethics complaints against government officials became law despite Gov. Lincoln Almond's failure to sign the measure.

Under Rhode Island law, once a measure clears both legislative bodies, the governor has 10 days to either sign, veto or take no action on a bill. If the governor signs the bill or takes no action within that period, the bill becomes law.

Senate Bill 2830, introduced in February, provides that the state Ethics Commission, upon finding a complaint to be "frivolous or filed in bad faith," can require the complainant to pay a civil penalty of $5,000.

The Senate passed the bill on June 24, and the House followed suit on June 30.

In his comments to the Senate -- called a "no action message" -- Almond wrote: "Some are concerned that this bill would have a chilling effect on legitimate ethics complaints. If true, I would veto this bill. A close reading of the bill, however, indicates that the Ethics Commission itself will retain the power to encourage meritorious complaints while carefully using its discretion to deter the filing of complaints known not to be true or intended to harass a public official."

Almond reasoned in his message that: "In sum, it is nearly inconceivable that a citizen, who in good faith believes that a violation of the Code of Ethics may have occurred, would ever be fined by the Commission under this provision."

However, some government officials and civil libertarians fear that the law will have a chilling effect on citizens who wish to file legitimate ethics complaints.

Sen. Catherine Graziano, who voted against the bill, said: "I was concerned back when this bill was first introduced that it would have a chilling effect on citizens. Not only does a citizen possibly face a $5,000 fine, but the Ethics Commission can also require the person to pay the legal expenses of the defendant. I am also concerned that the law does not define 'frivolous.' Even though the courts may have defined it in a court case, as the sponsor argued, the average citizen is not going to know how a court defined it."

Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union, agrees. He said: "We opposed this bill when it was in the Legislature, and we urged the governor to veto it, because we think it will have a chilling effect on some citizens who want to file complaints. This law leaves those who file complaints with a $5,000 sword hanging over their heads and fails to define the standards by which the committee will determine whether a complaint is 'frivolous.'

"It is very ironic that the state of Rhode Island, which has a strong anti-SLAPP law, now provides government officials with more protection from criticism than anybody else. This law basically carves out an exception for public officials from the state anti-SLAPP law which provides great protection for people who exercise their First Amendment free- petition rights," Brown said.

Brown said his organization will monitor the implementation of the law by the Ethics Commission before deciding whether to file a legal challenge.

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