The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

"A Court Cannot Tell [Anyone] That He or She Cannot Be Rude, Insulting, or Boorish"

Words of wisdom from Rhode Island Judge Richard Licht.


The case in which this arose is Fuoco v. Polisena, decided Thursday. Eileen Fuoco, a former Johnston, R.I. city councilwoman sued Mayor Joseph Polisena for slander over some statements he made at a city council hearing; the jury awarded her $34,000 in damages, but the judge set the verdict aside, concluding that Fuoco hadn't proved the statements to be false statements of fact, or at least hadn't proved the statements were said with knowledge or recklessness of their falsehood. Here's part of the judge's summary:

The Meeting was more than robust, some might say it was raucous, and some might contend that Mayor Polisena's conduct lacked the civility one would hope to see at a public meeting. However, politics is not played by the Marquis of Queensbury rules. The heart of the American experience is free expression.

Plaintiff's position, and indeed this case in its entirety, evinces a concerning lack of veneration for the First Amendment. A Court cannot tell an elected official, a candidate for office, or a member of the public that he or she cannot be rude, insulting, or boorish. The Courts may not like what someone says or how it is said, but it is the duty of the Courts to protect the right of anyone to express oneself about a public official as long as the statements are not knowingly false or made with a reckless disregard for the truth.

The judge, by the way, knows something of political debate; he had been, in his day, a Rhode Island state senator and Lieutenant Governor. He also sits in the courthouse named after his uncle, Frank Licht, who had been Governor.