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Tuesday, June 11, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Newspapers Call Politicians’ Bluff Over Ads

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (CN) - Warwick City Council threatened to sue a newspaper for publishing their photos in political ads, and the Rhode Island Press Association fired back with a suit saying the politicians are out of line.

Warwick City Council members threatened to sue the Beacon, a semiweekly newspaper in Warwick, after it published a paid ad from a citizen who "expressed concerns regarding previous actions undertaken by members of the Warwick City Council," according to the Superior Court complaint. The ad included the names and photos of the mayor and the president of the City Council.

Similar ads, paid for by the same citizen - nonparty Robert Cote - addressed vehicle taxes, and featured names and photos of all the members of the City Council.

"Prior to and after the publication of the foregoing advertisements, the Beacon received correspondence from or on behalf of certain members of the Warwick City Council depicted in the advertisements," the complaint states. "In those communications, those individuals claims that the publication of the advertisements containing their names and likenesses would provide grounds for a civil action against the Beach pursuant to §9-1-28 of the Rhode Island General Laws."

That law states: "Action for unauthorized use of name, portrait or picture. Any person whose name, portrait or picture is used within the state for advertising purposes or for the purposes of trade without his or her written consent may bring an action in the superior court against the person so using his or her name, portrait of picture to prevent and restrain the use thereof, and may recover damages for any injuries sustained by reason of such use. If the defendant shall have knowingly used the person's name, portrait or picture in such manner as is prohibited or unlawful, the court, in its discretion, may award the plaintiff treble the amount of the damages sustained by him or her."

The Beacon and the Press Association say the law is unconstitutional on its face, and unconstitutionally vague, under the federal and state constitutions.

They say the law "was not intended to address such opposition ... on matters of public concern, and was instead intended to prevent the unauthorized use of a person's name or likeness in connection with the sale of products or services in commerce. But, the past history of demands asserting that the statute reaches beyond the commercial contract and into core political speech demonstrates that the statute is vague.

"When individuals holding public office, or otherwise involved in matters of public concern, can use the language of §9-1-28 to chill or prevent the publication of opposition advertisements, or otherwise dictate the content or terms of such advertisements, it has and continues to have an unintended and impermissible consequence on the freedom of the press and on the free exchange of ideas, all in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and comparable provisions of the Rhode Island Constitution."

Beacon Communications and the Press Association seek declaratory judgment and costs.

They are represented by Mark Freel, of Edward Wildman Palmer, a cooperating attorney of the Rhode Island ACLU.

Warwick, pop. 85,000, is Rhode Island's second-largest city by population. Its median household income of $59,088 is 9 percent above the state median of $54,119. It is 91.5 percent white, according to city-data.com.

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