RI Senate guidelines change would deter public testimony say civil rights advocates – Uprise RI

The League of Women Voters RI, Common cause RI and the ACLU from RI have sent a letter to the Rhode Island Senators expressing their grave concern a proposed change on the rules of the Senate 2021-2022, which are scheduled for a vote on Tuesday. The change would allow committee chairs, at their discretion, to require witnesses to testify under oath before their committee. As a result, a person who allegedly gave false testimony could face criminal charges of perjury.

In their letter, the organizations argue that doing so would have a deterrent effect on freedom of expression and the right to petition the government, undermining an important public forum and fundamental principle of democracy. The letter says:

“We believe that requiring the public to testify before legislative committees under threat of criminal sanctions will have the inevitable effect of frightening the exercise of first adjustment rights. Some members of the public will understandably be prevented from speaking before a legislative committee on issues that concern them, knowing that if they do not mark their words extremely carefully, they may be charged with perjury and prosecuted. “

“The first change guarantees the public an opportunity to be heard and resolve complaints,” he said Steven Brown, ACLU of the RI Executive Director. “This rule, however unintentional, would undermine that guarantee and the basic democratic process it is intended to promote.”

The letter also stressed that the amendment would give the chairmen of the committee a full discretion in deciding who should take an oath and when, a power that could easily be misused.

“It is more than a little ironic that the Rhode Island Senate decided to create a potential burden on the public who want to testify at Senate hearings without holding a public hearing on the change,” he said John Marion, Common Cause RI Managing Director. “You should go back to the drawing board with this idea.”

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The letter also raises a number of other important concerns:

“[S]Since it is ultimately up to the majority or the heads of the panel to decide which “perjurians” warrant referral to the attorney general, those members of the public who believe they are telling the “truth to power” are the most likely are in the crosshairs or at least feel that they are. Either way, the effect is the same: public discouragement and passionate testimony. “

The letter also notes that the rule is not a standard practice used by other public bodies:

“[O]State and local bodies do not require the public to testify under oath at public hearings unless they are acting in a quasi-judicial manner. There is no reason for the Senate to do this either. Legislative committee hearings are the epitome of public forums, not legal proceedings. While we recognize that the General Assembly gave itself legal authority to pass such a rule over half a century ago, there is simply no compelling reason to implement it now. “

“I have testified before legislative committees for several years and have been received with respectful attention by lawmakers,” he said Jane Koster, League of Women Voters from RI President. “However, I was cautious at times and worried that I might make a mistake speaking. I know a lot of my friends and league members who don’t like to testify personally for this reason. Adopting this rule would only stop them from being afraid of saying the wrong things that could get them into trouble. “

The letter closes with a request to the Senate to pass an amendment to remove this provision from the resolution.

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The hardest working news organization in Rhode Island! Founded in 2017 by Steve Ahlquist, Uprise RI is focused on civil liberties, social justice and human rights.

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