Newspapers Fight Back In Rhode Island

Here’s an interesting story out of Rhode Island. When some members of the Warwick City Council threatened to sue a local newspaper for running political ads featuring photos of the council members, the newspaper and the Rhode Island Press Association struck first with a declaratory judgment action. A declaratory judgment action is a kind of proactive litigation – a party can file a lawsuit and ask a court to resolve a dispute. Here, the newspaper and the Press Association want the court to declare (hence “declaratory”) that the council members are off base. Even more than normal. I think the court will rule in favor of the press on this one. The council members are contending that the use of their photos in a political ad – without their permission – violates their right of publicity. That right does give a person the ability to limit how someone uses their image. So, for example, Tiger Woods could make that claim if someone used his picture to advertise their product. But that’s a commercial use. Here we’re talking about political speech, and if the First Amendment protects anything, it protects that kind of speech. Imagine the consequences if candidates or office holders could use that law to shut down speech they didn’t like. It would be a lot noisy, perhaps, but that noisy is part of our democracy.