PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The case of Rhode Island v. John Leidecker should tell the public all it needs to know about teachers unions.
The case involves National Education Association-Rhode Island (NEARI) Deputy Executive Director John Leidecker, who impersonated and cyberstalked Democratic state Rep. Doug Gablinske during the 2010 elections. Leidecker was formally an assistant executive director with the NEARI, but was promotedto executive director after his antics resulted in voters ousting Gablinske, a mortal enemy of the teachers union.
Using an email account he created to impersonate the candidate, Leidecker emailed voters with lies that Gablinske supported tolls for the Mount Hope Bridge, when in fact the lawmaker opposed the measure. The devious stunt apparently confused enough voters to cause Gablinske to lose the Democratic primary. The lawmaker then attempted to mount a write-in campaign for the general election, but lost.
Besides the fake emails, Leidecker also allegedly sent harassing emails directly to the lawmaker and his staff, and installed nasty signs near Gablinske’s home.
A jury found Leidecker guilty of a misdemeanor cyberstalking charge, but he appealed the decision to Superior Court, where the case will be retried. More than three years after the original incidents, Leidecker continues to fight his conviction, arguing that his behavior was constitutionally protected political free speech, according to media reports.
“The State must prove that the ‘sole purpose’ of the alleged communication was to harass,” Leidecker’s attorney, Robert B. Mann, wrote in a motion to dismiss the case that was set to be heard this month, but was delayed.
“The facts in this case absolutely undermine any such attempted proof by the State,” he wrote. “Mr. Gablinski (sic) was a political figure. Mr. Leidecker, though acting individually, was clearly involved in a political dispute with Mr. Gablinski (sic). The messages in question are inherently political in nature.”
At the request of Associate Superior Court Justice Jeffrey A. Lanphear, the new judge in the case, Gablinske wrote into the court with his thoughts on Leidecker’s behavior and the recent motion to dismiss.
“I have read the motion, considered all the pertinent facts and analyzed the situation from my perspective as the victim,” Gablinske wrote.
“Judge Lanphear, I believe it would be unfortunate if you were to dismiss this case, based on the defense’s general argument of free speech. The message you would send to all Rhode Islanders, elected officials, stakeholders in the electoral process and the school children of this state would encourage, rather than punish, these types of intimidating and illegal actions.
“Mr. Leidecker’s sole purpose in messaging me and installing signs near my house was to harass and intimidate me and cause me severe emotional distress,” he continued. “Otherwise, he would have used his right to ‘free speech’ and acted like a man and said what he had to say publicly, and not hidden like a coward behind the cloak and dagger cyber world.”
Ruthless, cowardly tactics
As a state lawmaker Gablinske was a strong supporter of education reform and an advocate for fixing the state’s broken public employee pension system, which made him a natural enemy of the National Education Association-Rhode Island.
During Gablinske’s run for re-election in 2010, Leidecker, who was a NEARI union negotiator in the lawmaker’s district, took it upon himself to launch a campaign to harass Gablinske both politically and personally.
Gablinske reported the fake and harassing emails to law enforcement officials before the November 2, 2010 primary, but it wasn’t until after the election that police served a search warrant and seized computers at Leidecker’s home and the NEARI headquarters in Cranston, according to media reports.
Leidecker later admitted to sending emails and was charged with cyberstalking and convicted by a jury in September 2011. Throughout the trial, Leidecker’s attorneys argued the vindictive behavior was a political parody, therefore constitutionally protected free speech, WPRI.com reports.
Gablinske used another phrase to describe his stalker’s behavior: “union thuggery.”
“John Leidecker did this to me for two reasons: I was a representative who strongly supported education reform that is child-centered and pressed for reform of the pension system, to help the beneficiaries and leave enough taxpayer money for our classrooms, roads and bridges,” Gablinske later wrote in a Providence Journal editorial.
“As an attorney, he surely knew better. As a professional, he should have known better. He and other union representatives act this way because they are accustomed to getting away with it. This is not the first time Mr. Leidecker and NEARI leaders have been the subject of harassment complaints. Former Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey filed complaints against both Mr. Leidecker and Louis Rainone for harassing him.
“Mr. Leidecker and other NEARI leaders, including Mr. Rainone, who threatened to assault one of my former House colleagues in the courthouse, are part of a culture of thuggery that is not only condoned by such leaders as President Larry Purtill and Executive Director Robert Walsh, but also encouraged.”
In June 2011, while on trial for the cyberstalking charge, NEARI promoted Leidecker to his current position as deputy executive director, although the union kept the news under wraps until October. The promotion understandably angered many folks working in the state’s public education system.
“Not only was there an allegation, then there was a court case and there was a conviction. From our perspective, to then take that and just flippantly promote him and not even make an attempt to say, ‘Well, you know, he needs to be sidelined’ is not only arrogant, but it shows great disrespect for the court system,” Donna Perry, spokesperson for the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition told the media.
“It really makes a mockery of the bullying programs that we are trying to put in the schools,” she said.
A dangerous precedent
Leidecker immediately appealed the case to the Superior Court, and in Rhode Island that means he’s entitled to a fresh trial. Mann filed a motion to dismiss the case with the Superior Court in November, and a hearing on the motion was scheduled for two different days in January, and twice delayed.
Mann’s legal argument for the motion centers on his interpretation of the law that the state must prove Leidecker’s “sole purpose” for the emails was to harass Gablinske, and the state’s evidence doesn’t support that notion.
Other legal experts don’t agree.
Former Rhode Island Attorney General Arlene Violet penned an editorial for The Valley Breeze that explains why she thinks Leidecker’s First Amendment defense is bogus, and urges the Superior Court judge overseeing the case to proceed to trial.
“The defense attorney has argued that the messages were political in nature, and in effect, concedes that the purpose was to defeat Mr. Gablinske. Since it is political speech, he argues, the defendant cannot be prosecuted so the conviction should be dismissed,” Violet wrote.
“One central fact missing from the analysis, however, is the repetitive nature of these emails to Mr. Gablinske, not just to third parties for the purposes of defeating him. They, no doubt, ‘seriously alarmed, annoyed, or bothered the person’ as the statute requires. Nothing is more insidious and alarming to a candidate for office than emails sent to him and others representing the exact opposite position on the issue which the candidate holds.
“Were defeat of him the sole motive there might be an issue (regarding) political speech, but in this case, Mr. Leidecker decided to rub Mr. Gablinske’s nose in it by these anonymous postings sent to him. The district court judge found this activity was designed to harass and intimidate him.”
Violet contends the trial should move forward because it’s “quite plausible” that it would result in the same conclusion as in the lower court.
In an op-ed for The Anchor Rising, writer Monique Chartier also alluded to other political factors that could come into play in the appeal case.
“Campaign finance reports show Attorney General Peter Kilmartin has not lacked for contributions from labor unions, public and private, a fact that may cause some to … pre-judge how he may act in this matter,” she wrote. “Gablinske’s supporters hope that Kilmartin will actively oppose this motion to dismiss.”
As the case drags into its fourth year, it may be slowly fading from many Rhode Islanders’ memories, but, as Chartier correctly concludes:
“If the conviction does not stand, the resulting legal precedent could become an open invitation for others to emulate Mr. Leidecker’s activity during election years, rather than encourage more prudence and civility.”