Warwick, R.I. — Attorney Jeffrey Sowa, representing former Warwick Schools compliance officer and director of human resources Rosemary Healey, has threatened the Warwick Post and the Warwick Beacon with defamation lawsuits if they disclose the contents of the Ragosta Report, a public record the RI Attorney General ordered the School Department to release March 30.
The “Ragosta Report” details Warwick Public Schools’ handling of accusations against Gorton Jr. High Science teacher Mario Atoyan. It focuses on the actions taken by three school administrators: Richard D’Agostino, superintendent at the time, Dennis Mullen, the former director of Secondary Education, and Healey.
Following the presentation of the report to the Warwick School Committee, Healey was reassigned to handle the human resources department, then placed on leave. Mullen recently took a job in another district. D’Agostino has retired.
The Warwick Post and the Warwick Beacon each filed public records complaints after the Warwick School Department and the City of Warwick denied release of the Ragosta Report. The RI Attorney General’s office ruled the document public, and ordered the School Department to release it to the publications within 20 business days, which expires Wednesday.
In a letter dated March 21, received by the Warwick Post March 25, Sowa claims the Ragosta Report, the result of Ragosta’s investigation that included interviews and emails, is unfair and defamatory to Healey, D’Agostino and Mullen because those documents are not included.
“While the Attorney General may have ruled the Ragosta Report portion of the investigation public, The Warwick Post will not be insulated from liability for release of this defamatory document,” Sowa wrote in the letter.
The Post requested the input of the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), whose director Steve Brown said that Sowa’s letter is a clear example of a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP), an anti-free speech tactic used to frighten publishers and reporters into avoiding reporting and commenting on matters of public interest.
Sowa also asks, when the public document is released, “please do not release it, its findings or any matter related to Mrs. Healey and her employment unless and until Mrs. Healey is offered all of her due process rights and all other rights as protected by law. In fact, please decease and desist from publishing any matters pertaining to Mrs. Healey or her employment in the Warwick Public Schools as any such publications would be based on rumor, speculation, innuendo.”
Sowa also admits in his letter that neither he nor Healey have seen the report to support his allegations that it is based on rumor and innuendo.
“Further, it is important to note that the subjects of the report, including Ms. Healey, have not been given the opportunity to substantively review the report, were not given a copy of the transcripts and have still been given no meaningful opportunity to respond to the report,” Sowa writes.
Sowa did not respond to the Warwick Post’s March 25 message seeking Healey’s thoughts on the report, nor did he respond to a call Monday morning.
The letter is doubly outrageous, Brown said, in light of Sowa’s admission that he and his client have not yet seen the document.
“The ACLU of Rhode Island is deeply troubled that the Post has been threatened with a defamation lawsuit if it exercises its basic First Amendment rights to report on a public document that was generated on behalf of a public body and that addresses a matter of great public concern,” Brown said.
The Warwick Beacon received a similar letter from Sowa weeks ago after filing a public records request for the Ragosta Report. Beacon Editor and Publisher John Howell said he intends to publish the document. Given that the report is a public record, and that the RI Attorney General has ordered its release, “Why shouldn’t the public have access to this?” Howell said.
Howell added he has also asked Healey to comment on the report. “We are anxious to give her the opportunity to tell her story,” Howell said.
Sowa’s request that the Warwick Post stop and refrain from commenting or reporting on Healey’s employment status with the Warwick School Department, which public officials report is a direct consequence of the handling of Atoyan’s behavior as documented in the Ragosta Report, also appears to ignore fair comment privilege, a qualified privilege applied to news publications protecting discussion of matters of legitimate concern to the community.
“This type of intimidation tactic is a direct threat to freedom of the press. It is also a reason that the General Assembly passed a law in the 1990s to protect people from lawsuits like this that have a chilling effect on speech,” Brown said, referring to RI’s anti-SLAPP legislation, the language of which states in part, “that such litigation is disfavored and should be resolved quickly with minimum cost to citizens who have participated in matters of public concern.
“As that law points out, ‘full participation by persons and organizations and robust discussion of issues of public concern … are essential to the democratic process.’ The public document at issue in this dispute deserves a full airing, and the First Amendment was designed to clearly allow it,” Brown said.
Atoyan is next due in court on May 6.
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