RI TV, radio stations urge judge to drop gag order

Broadcasters cite 'right and responsibility to report on issues' impacting taxpayers

R.I. Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter speaks during a court hearing in 2012.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island’s television and radio stations are urging Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter to lift the gag order she’s issued on all parties in the high-stakes state pension lawsuit.

In a statement issued Monday, the Rhode Island Broadcasters Association called on Taft-Carter to nix the order, which has prevented both elected officials and many union leaders from disclosing information about a proposed settlement that would end the suit. Retirees and workers have been voting on the proposal for a week and a half.

“We respectfully ask the court to reconsider its decision and lift the gag order on the proposed pension settlement case so as to give the residents of the state of Rhode Island transparency and knowledge of this high-profile decision affecting each and every Rhode Island taxpayer,” the broadcasters group said in a statement.

“Television and radio station presidents and news directors have spoken out against the burden this gag order represents to their efforts to report information to viewers and listeners of the communities they serve,” the statement said. “The news departments of the association’s television and radio stations have a right and responsibility to report on issues that impact all Rhode Island taxpayers and the future of our state.”

The Rhode Island Broadcasters Association is a trade group representing TV and radio stations licensed in Southeastern New England, including WPRI 12 and its sister station Fox Providence.

The statement by the broadcasters follows a similar intervention last week by the Rhode Island Press Association, which represents the state’s newspapers, that also called on Taft-Carter to end the gag order. The ACLU has made the same request.

“This is a complicated case with huge ramifications for taxpayers and those who receive pensions,” the newspaper leaders said in their joint statement. “It is wrong to deny them any information that they need to understand the settlement proposal and the voting process.”

State Sen. James Sheehan added his voice to the chorus calling for an end to the gag hour later Monday.

“The gag order has been and continues to be too expansive,” Sheehan said in a statement. “At best it was intended to safeguard negotiations. But once the agreement was struck and employees began voting, I firmly believe the public has a right to know all. If that is not done quickly, if that is not the case, this gag order begins to resemble censorship as opposed to good jurisprudence.”

At stake in the underlying lawsuit is whether Rhode Island legislators acted constitutionally three years ago when they reduced future retirement benefits to shave roughly $4 billion off the shortfall in the state’s pension fund for government workers and taxpayers.

Former R.I. Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank Williams, recently appointed the case’s special master by Taft-Carter, has been the driving force behind the new settlement proposal that took shape in recent weeks. Taft-Carter appointed him after she denied the lawyers’ request to delay the April 20 start date for the trial.

Voting on the proposed settlement was supposed to end last Friday; it has been approved by retirees and the state’s largest public employees union, though some union locals have rejected it. The gag order has prevented officials from disclosing when an announcement will be made about whether the settlement has received approval from enough members of the pension system to get the green light.

If the plaintiffs and Taft-Carter approve the proposed settlement, it would be sent to state lawmakers for them to enact into law.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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