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ACLU, Center for Justice file lawsuit challenging R.I. order to evict homeless people in encampment at State House

“The law is clear: the government’s ability to interfere with individuals exercising their rights to free speech and to petition the government is at its most limited when that protest is at a public forum like the State House,” the ACLU said

A homeless woman leaves her tent Friday set up in Governor Dan McKee’s parking spot in front of the State House.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island and the Center for Justice have filed a suit against Governor Dan McKee on behalf of members of the encampment of homeless people outside the State House, alleging the state’s actions to “evict” them is unconstitutional.

The suit, which was filed in Rhode Island Superior Court on Tuesday afternoon, marks the second complaint filed against the governor’s order demanding that those in the encampment leave or face fines or arrest. The complaint, which names more than two dozen plaintiffs, requests that the people in the encampment be allowed to remain on State House grounds, and argues it is the encampment members’ rights of free speech and expression to do so, and their right to “peaceably assemble and petition the government.”


The ACLU said the state was violating the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the US Constitution, the Rhode Island Constitution, and the Homeless Bill of Rights.

“The law is clear: the government’s ability to interfere with individuals exercising their rights to free speech and to petition the government is at its most limited when that protest is at a public forum like the State House,” said ACLU of Rhode Island cooperating attorney Lynette Labinger.

Each plaintiff is a resident of Rhode Island, the complaint states, but none have a fixed or permanent place of residence.

Adam Northrop, who attended the ACLU’s news conference announcing the lawsuit on Tuesday afternoon, said he works in his family’s trucking company and is an electrician. He is living in a tent outside the State House, and has not, he told reporters, been offered any housing.

The complaint states that some or all of the plaintiffs wish to convey that they are in need of and unable to access adequate shelter, and that they believe that message is “best conveyed by their continuing physical presence at the seat of the Rhode Island government.” The complaint also states that some people living in the encampment on State House grounds believe staying there “affords them more safety and security from exposure to crime and greater access to social services” than they would normally receive being in secluded, isolated locations such as woods or parkland.


The ACLU complaint comes after Richard Corley, an attorney who used to serve on the Warwick City Council, filed a suit on Dec. 8 on behalf of the people sleeping outside the State House. On Dec. 9, Superior Court Judge David Cruise issued a temporary restraining order, preventing the state from clearing the tent encampment until Wednesday. A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday at 10 a.m.

Steven Brown, the executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, sent a letter to McKee on Dec. 8, demanding that he rescind his order to evict the homeless individuals living in tents in light of “the serious legal and policy concerns raised by such an action on the state’s part.”

Brown said the state does not have any formal rules or regulations that would allow for such an eviction.

Labinger told reporters that the ACLU’s letter was “largely ignored” by the governor, who did not respond to the letter.

McKee is being represented by attorneys R. Bart Totten and Stephen D. Lapatin of Adler Pollock & Sheehan P.C., who did not previously respond to the Globe’s requests for comment. It’s unclear why the McKee or his office hired private counsel instead of being represented by the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office or lawyers within the governor’s office.


Andrea Palagi and Matt Sheaff, both spokespeople for the governor’s office, did not immediately respond to the Globe for comment on Tuesday.

State housing Secretary Josh Saal issued a statement through his spokesman Chris Raia to the Globe in response to the lawsuit Tuesday: “Just as we have been, we’re focused on continuing to do outreach and offer shelter to the individuals and couples who are camped outside the State House.”

The complaints were filed in response to notices handed out by McKee staff on Dec. 7 giving the people who have been sleeping outside in tents 48 hours to vacate the State House grounds or face fines or arrest. According to the notices handed out, the state promised to provide people in the encampment with beds in an emergency shelter and transportation from the State House.

On Monday, when questioned by members of the press at an unrelated event, McKee said the state was short “close to 200 shelter beds.” But according to data provided by the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness, as of Nov. 30 there were approximately 615 people, including children, living in places not meant for habitation while they waited for spaces in shelters.

Rhode Island currently has a shortage of shelter beds for people who are homeless. As of the 9 a.m. deadline for eviction came and went on Dec. 9, it was still unclear where, exactly, the state was proposing to place those who had been camped on State House grounds. By noon on Dec. 9, McKee spokesman Matthew Sheaff that there were “less than 10″ remaining members of the encampment, though there were still about 25 tents set up outside the State House.


“The urgency of getting the plaintiffs who are staying at the State House appropriate shelter is what motivates this action,” said Jennifer Wood, the executive director of the Rhode Island Center for Justice.

Alexa Gagosz can be reached at Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.