If the First Amendment protects anything, it surely protects the right to stand peacefully on a public sidewalk and hand out leaflets protesting a political appointment.

But it didn't protect Judith Reilly and Oscar Lemus on February 2, 2010. At 6:30 pm on that day, according to a lawsuit filed by Reilly in federal court, the two activists with the Olneyville Neighborhood Association were handing out fliers outside the Providence Career and Technical Academy, where then-mayor (now congressman) David Cicilline was about to deliver his "State of the City" address. The fliers objected to Cicilline's reappointment of Stephen Durkee to the City Planning Commission at a time when Durkee was being investigated for a possible ethics violation.


free speech offender Dean Esserman
According to the lawsuit, the two activists were told to move across the street or face arrest. They did as they were told, but returned, Reilly said, after a former state legislator approached her and said the police had no right to boot them out. After another confrontation, she agreed to move across the street again, even though that prevented her from handing fliers to people as they walked inside the school.

Reilly filed a complaint with the police department, only to receive an e-mail from internal-affairs inspector Francisco Colon questioning whether the two officers had actually engaged in misconduct.

With three different police officers implicated in either denying Reilly and Lemus their constitutional rights or expressing confusion, it's clear that this Muzzle should go right to the top. Thus do we present the coveted Muzzle to Providence's troubled former police chief, DEAN ESSERMAN, who was suspended for a day last February after a "verbal confrontation" with a lower-ranking officer, and who recently came under criticism for not calling police when there was underage drinking at his daughter's graduation party. Esserman announced last week that he would resign his post, citing the "distraction" caused by the latter controversy.

"Leafleting on public sidewalks is a simple, inexpensive, and time-honored way for people to share their political and social views with other members of the public," said Reilly's lawyer, Richard Sinapi, in a statement on the Rhode Island ACLU's Web site. "It is intolerable and inexcusable for a large municipal police department to be either ignorant or disdainful of such an important First Amendment right."

Sinapi tells the Phoenix that the police department has indicated that it will fight the suit. A settlement conference has been scheduled for September 7, and, failing that, the case will move toward trial.

What's truly on trial, though, is the First Amendment guarantee of "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

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