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LINCOLN CHAFEE

AIMS AT CHILD PORNOGRAPHY, SHOOTS ONLINE FREE SPEECH

He did it for the children.

Last summer Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee signed legislation giving law-enforcement agencies the power to obtain information about customers of online services without first having to get a warrant. The reason, according to a statement issued by the legislature's publicity office, was to make it easier to crack down on child pornography.

But that wasn't all the bill could do. It also could be used by officials who wish to go after their online critics. Which is why both the ACLU of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Press Association implored Chafee to withhold his signature.

The ACLU cited two incidents that were the subjects of a 2011 Muzzle Award. In both Narragansett and Barrington, police sought to investigate people who were speaking out against local politicians. The Barrington case was especially absurd, as police demanded that the Barrington Times help them identify someone who had anonymously posted what they considered a threat about the town manager. The offending statement: "You better check what is in that meatball sandwich you are eating."

"Passage of this bill," Rhode Island ACLU executive director Steven Brown wrote in a letter to Chafee, "would make investigations like these even more prevalent, creating a truly chilling effect on online speech."

Added Scott Pickering, president of the Rhode Island Press Association: "Our fear is that, armed with this power, law enforcement could demand information about those who engage in healthy public debate on blogs, news Web sites, or other forums where citizens gather electronically. While these forums can occasionally turn nasty, they are fertile outlets for the free exchange of ideas and opinions. They are channels for our First Amendment right to free speech."

Indeed, the so-called administrative-subpoena power, in effect in Massachusetts since 2008, is at the heart of another Muzzle this year, involving the anonymous Twitter user known as "Guido Fawkes."

Chafee is generally someone who can be counted on to do the right thing. In this case, though, the allure of being seen as striking a blow against child pornography proved too tempting. And thus law enforcement has been granted sweeping powers that may help them protect children — but that will allow for a lot more than that, too.

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