Last week, Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee signed into law improvements to the Access to Public Records Act that had been advocated by a number of good-government groups as well as the Rhode Island Press Association.
Among other things, the new law expands the number and kinds of records that are public, and in the case of some records currently held private, allows for a test that balances the public good of exposure against an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
Earlier in the year, the governor signed a different bill that protects the right of the press to use images of public figures in political advertising without the need of consent of the person or persons in the image. The law was a response to a lawsuit filed by the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the press association that challenged a state law that had been interpreted to prohibit such use, and as such would have placed severe limits on political discourse.
The General Assembly and the governor have rectified what was a very problematic legal issue.
Unfortunately, not all legislation that good-government advocates sought was made into law. Last week the governor vetoed legislation that would have required police to obtain a warrant (absent special circumstances) before they could search an arrestee’s cellphone, a potential treasure trove of personal and/or confidential information.
It is clear that the General Assembly needs to get right back on that horse and at the beginning of the next session, override the governor’s veto and put that important privacy protection in place.
– Editor’s note: PBN Editor Mark S. Murphy is president of the Rhode Island Press Association. •