By Katie Mulvaney
The Providence Journal will appeal a ruling denying the newspaper access to records related to a state police investigation into a 2012 graduation party hosted by Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s teenage son that left a young partygoer hospitalized and the governor’s son accused of violating a state law that prohibits providing alcohol to minors.
The Journal recently filed a notice that it will appeal the ruling by Superior Court Judge William E. Carnes Jr. in a case that marks the first significant test of the revised state Access to Public Records Act. Lawmakers in 2012 added a balancing test that allows judges to weigh the public’s interest in disclosure of records against the privacy needs of individuals. (Read more about APRA here, here and here.)
Carnes found on April 1 that disclosing the police records in the Caleb Chafee case would amount to a “clearly unwarranted invasion of the privacy interest” of the individuals named in the records, including the governor.
The Journal argued that the balancing test called for disclosure because of the strong public interest in shedding light on how the state police handled a case involving the governor’s son, and the governor himself. The state police answer to the governor and provide his security detail.
Joseph V. Cavanagh Jr., The Journal’s lawyer and a member of the New England First Amendment Coalition’s Board of Directors, said the appeal intends to protect the public interest of the people of Rhode Island.
“The Superior Court decision, if allowed to stand, imposes an overwhelming obstacle for the public interest to even be recognized,” Cavanagh said. “We are hopeful that, on appeal, this narrow approach will be rejected so that the significant public interest in this particular case, and in others to follow, can be realistically considered and appropriately weighed to accommodate the interests of all.”
Under Rhode Island’s open records law, The Providence Journal and other media organizations traditionally had access to the names of people who have been charged under the state’s social host law, according to Karen Bordeleau, senior vice president and executive editor of The Providence Journal.
“I find it distressing that Gov. Lincoln Chafee thinks his family is not bound by the same laws as everyone else,” said Bordeleau, who is also a member of NEFAC’s Board of Directors. “And the fact that the Rhode Island State Police would comply with his request to withhold those records and that a Superior Court judge would support that action is an affront to the public’s right to know.”
“It is my experience that records are sealed from the public not because there is a true concern for privacy but because there is something to hide,” she said.
This legal battle began in October 2012 when The Journal sued the state Department of Public Safety, the state police and Col. Steven G. O’Donnell after state police repeatedly rejected reporter Amanda Milkovits’ requests for records relating to then-18-year-old Caleb Chafee’s party at his family’s Wee Hoose Farm in Exeter the previous spring.
The party was cut short when an 18-year-old guest vomited and became semiconscious. Some attendees later told the state police that Caleb Chafee demanded that the guest be removed and that no one call 911 until they were off the property.
According to a leaked state police report, several boys put the guest in the back seat of a car and then female companions drove about a mile away before calling 911. State police said a rescue crew took the teenager to the hospital for suspected alcohol poisoning.
State police and the attorney general’s office months later charged Caleb Chafee with violating the social-host law by procuring alcohol for his teenage guests. He pleaded no contest and was ordered to pay $500 to the state Crime Victims Compensation Fund and perform 30 hours of community service — the maximum under the social-host law. District Court Judge Madeline Quirk in March 2013 agreed to expunge the court record for Chafee, who now attends Brown University.
Katie is a reporter for The Providence Journal. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.