R.I. school board sued over controversial executive session


By Steve Brown, executive director, Rhode Island ACLU

Never underestimate the creativity of public bodies seeking to conduct meetings in private. That’s one lesson we’ve learned in seeking to halt a disturbing trend in Rhode Island of unlawful private meetings to discuss legal-related matters.  For the second time in six months, we have filed an Open Meetings Act lawsuit against a school committee for violating the law’s provisions governing the holding of executive sessions.

The latest suit, filed against the East Providence School Committee, alleges that the committee illegally met in private in September 2009 to discuss what it called a “Public Comment Lawsuit.” However, that lawsuit doesn’t exist. In fact, when we filed an open records request to obtain copies of any documents related to this “lawsuit,” the school committee responded that no documents existed. What they most likely secretly discussed was a letter that the ACLU had sent,  seeking background documents on the committee’s “public comment” policies, which had been a source of great community controversy. Their most recent policy, which had caused an uproar, required people desiring to speak at committee meetings to submit a formal written request at least one week in advance. Somehow, seeking information about the policy was enough to turn things into an imaginary “lawsuit” against it.

Last August, we filed a similar suit against a closed meeting that the Barrington School Committee held to discuss the merits of a mandatory breathalyzer policy for students attending school dances. Like East Providence, the school committee relied on the “litigation” exemption to meet in private, when at the time of the executive session there was no litigation pending or threatened and there was not even a specific policy in place that could have been challenged through litigation. Instead, the school committee argued that a letter the ACLU had sent raising policy concerns about breathalyzer testing constituted a “threat” of litigation authorizing a closed meeting.

In both cases, school committees have stretched what was supposed to be a narrow exemption – allowing public bodies to discuss necessary legal strategy – into an exception that swallows the rule. Recently, a judge denied Barrington’s motion for summary judgment, and we are hopeful our suits will ultimately end this trend of treating any curiosity or criticism about a policy into “potential litigation” that can be discussed in secret.


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