Providence, R.I. —The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island has agreed to provide legal defense for the Warwick Post and Warwick Beacon if Attorney Jeffrey Sowa delivers on his threat of a lawsuit if the publications publish the Ragosta Report.
RI ACLU Executive Director Steven Brown contacted the Warwick Post Tuesday evening to pledge the organization’s support and intent to provide a pro-bono attorney, Neal McNamara, to defend the publications if Sowa files suit.
Sowa represents former Warwick Schools compliance officer and current director of human resources Rosemary Healey, one of three Warwick Public School administrators whose actions are detailed in the Ragosta Report. His office has sent the Warwick Post and the Warwick Beacon letters threatening a lawsuit if they publish the Ragosta Report, which the RI Attorney General’s office has ordered the School Department to make public today. The letter sent to the Warwick Post arrived March 25, four business days before the report’s release.
The report details Warwick Public Schools’ handling of accusations of improper conduct with students 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.
“A public employee’s threat to sue newspapers for doing their job – informing the public about the contents of a public document on a matter of enormous public interest – attacks the very heart of the freedom of the press. If a suit is filed against them for exercising their basic First Amendment rights, we are prepared to vigorously defend the Post and the Beacon and to challenge this abuse of the legal process and clear effort to chill free speech rights,” said McNamara.
On Friday, Brown called the letters outrageous violations of the publications’ First Amendment rights. He said he’d expedite the RI ACLU’s usual three to four-week committee review of the Warwick Post’s request for support, given the short time between the letter’s delivery and the release of the Ragosta Report.
The promise to defend the publications came hours ahead of the scheduled release the Ragosta Report, which the Warwick Post and Warwick Beacon plan to print.
“I’ve often been threatened with frivolous lawsuits aimed at scaring me away from reporting on public matters and records people have every right to view and discuss in 20 years of community journalism. This was the first time it directly threatened a business I owned, though, and it rattled me,” said WarwickPost.com’s Publisher and Editor, Rob Borkowski in a prepared statement.
“But Attorney Sowa, who must surely be aware of First Amendment protections regarding reporting on public officials and documents, sought to bully Mr. Howell and I into walking away from our responsibility to give the parents of Warwick the information they need to assess the deeds of the people they entrust their children to each day. So when I thought about that, I was only rattled a little while.
Fortunately for Warwick parents, Mr. Howell, and me, the ACLU of Rhode Island has decided to offer us legal representation if Sowa and his client make good on their threat.”
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