With a looming court battle pitting the public’s right to know versus the security of personal data in the internet age, tensions are escalating in the fight between the two litigants, The Providence Journal and Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea.
In the latest move, H. Philip West Jr., the longtime former executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, and Andy Hodgkin, who served as executive counsel for part of former Gov. Don Caricieri’s time in office, are criticizing a series of editorials on the issue in the ProJo.
The ProJo is suing Gorbea after being denied an open records request for a digitized list of almost 800,000 state voters, with their full names and birth data.
Gorbea says more than 99 percent of voters can be identified through birth year information provided by her office, and that a stand-alone terminal at her Elections branch on West River Street offers all the data sought by the newspaper. A hearing in the case is expected later this year.
In an unpublished op-ed piece submitted to the ProJo, West accused the paper’s editorial page editor, Edward Achorn, of simplifying the dispute between the Journal and Gorbea’s office and not explaining a balancing test between privacy and the public interest in the Access to Public Records Act, Rhode Island’s public records law.
“In a series of slapshot attacks, he belittled her efforts to protect hundreds of thousands of state voters from identity theft,” West wrote. “He accused her of substituting ‘her personal whims for the clear meaning of the law.’ He insisted that she was exhibiting ‘disdain for the people’s right to get information about their government.’ ”
West wrote that Gorbea “and others submitted responses, but he refused to print them unless they accepted his edits. He also failed to explain a significant court case between the Providence Journal and Secretary of State over the names, home addresses, and full birthdates of all Rhode Island voters.”
Achorn, who said he hasn’t yet read all of West’s essay, said the ProJo’s editorial page includes diverse views, and he said that West had not responded to his feedback.
“Anybody who has read the Journal Commentary pages for 2 minutes knows it publishes contrarian viewpoints, including criticism of its editorials,” Achorn wrote via email. “I challenge anyone to find more balanced Commentary pages anywhere in America.”
He added, “As an editor, I do try to avoid ad hominem attacks which are very popular these days. I prefer to shift the focus to the issues raised so that we may discuss ideas rather than just attack people. I explained to Phil that editorials are not personal signed pieces by me necessarily reflecting my own opinion, but rather represent the position of The Providence Journal's editorial board and invited him to submit a piece reflecting that and discussing the issues raised in the editorials if he wished to. Haven't heard back.”
In his own submission to the ProJo, apparently sent in January, Hodgkin wrote, “For the third time in as many months, the Providence Journal unfairly characterizes Nellie Gorbea’s mental process while slamming her for actions relating to public records. In the most recent barb, the editorial characterizes her as believing she has ‘…unilateral authority to rewrite the laws and deny the public access…’ (Editorial, January 23, 2019). Last month, the ProJo characterized her as having ‘disdain… for people’s rights’ (Editorial, December 29, 2018). And, the month before, for substituting ‘her personal whims for the clear meaning of the law” (Editorial, November 17, 2018).’ ”
Hodgkin added, “Words matter, as the ProJo should know better than anyone. Attributing motive and intent to an individual is unfair unless that motive or intent can be honestly and truly known. It becomes part of the muddy innuendo being slung around in public debates. In this case it is unfair to a conscientious public servant.”
Gorbea said she she agrees with the criticism.
“I have been disappointed with The Providence Journal’s editorial board and their lack of transparency in providing alternative views on this particular topic, one that’s really, really important,” she said in an interview. “There’s nothing more critical than balancing individuals’ right to privacy and holding government accountable in the digital age.”
The Journal endorsed Gorbea when she ran for re-election last year. She is considered a potential Democratic candidate for governor in 2022.