Officer joined by ACLU to challenge press gag rule

(PROVIDENCE, R.I.) -- Declaring that police officers should not be expected to act like "Buckingham Palace guards," the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit yesterday challenging the constitutionality of a gag rule that prevents the Providence police from talking to the media without the police chief's approval.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Sgt. Rhonda Kessler, an 11-year veteran of the force, argues that the gag rule is "arbitrary, capricious and unpredictable" and that allowing police officers to comment on public issues serves an important public interest.

Last year, Kessler was suspended for a day without pay after she responded in The Providence Journal to an accusation that she had belittled a victim in a sexual assault case.

She told a Providence Journal reporter that, as a woman, she would not do that.

The lawsuit seeks a court order striking down the gag rule and calls for an award of unspecified damages to Kessler, an amount that one ACLU lawyer says should include, at minimum, Kessler's lost wages.

It also calls on the police department to delete any reference to the suspension from Kessler's personnel file.

Two years ago, the ACLU successfully challenged a similar policy that had been in effect at the Providence Fire Department.

In filing yesterday's suit, John W. Dineen, a volunteer lawyer with the ACLU, questioned the wisdom of the gag rule as well as its constitutionality:

"Do we really want police officers who cannot speak to the public or answer questions unless they first obtain express permission from the chief?"

Under the First Amendment, Dineen declared, "there must be healthy communication between police officers and the people they serve."

Police Chief Urbano Prignano Jr. did not return a call yesterday seeking the department's reaction to the suit.

(iSyndicate; The Providence Journal-Bulletin; Nov. 15, 2000). Terms and Conditions: Copyright(c) 2000 LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.

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