Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Follow the fusion

On Monday, we yakked it up about fusion centers, coming to a Pennsylvania city near you (if you live near Harrisburg, where the FBI and state police will get cuddly while poring over data).

Yesterday national ACLU updated its report What's Wrong with Fusion Centers and announced it to the press. More info is over at national's blog:
Of course we want law enforcement sharing truly relevant information. But hoarding information like medical records, tax information, credit scores, etc. is effectively throwing more hay onto an already massive stack and that won’t make us safer.

Fusion centers, why do we distrust you so? Let me count the ways:

* Ambiguous lines of authority. Who is the boss of you exactly? So many jurisdictions and no clear lines of authority make us nervous.
* Private Sector Participants. You’re BFF with those guys. Using private-sector companies and corporations to get information about me makes me worry about who has access to that information. And, frankly, it only makes me like you less.
* Military Participation. Ever hear of Posse Comitatus?
* Data Fusion = Data Mining. A lot of hay means a lot of ways to sift through that hay and a lot of hay sifters sifting through that hay. Listen. Bottom line — enough with the hay. You are data mining. Knock it off.
* Excessive Secrecy. You keep telling me to trust you baby, but you’re always keeping secrets. Without oversight and uniform guidelines that means no real rules and that doesn’t work when you’ve got our information at your fingertips.

Amanda from national picked up on this key point:
Here’s the creepiest part. Fusion centers aren’t just a mystery to us, they’re a mystery to the people running them, the people working in them and the people’s whose information is stored within them.

That's what I found Friday while hangin' at PSP headquarters. The communications trooper I spoke with couldn't clarify what the oversight mechanism is at the new PSP-FBI fusion center at PSP HQ. Translation: Abuse our privacy at will.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Confusion center

In my almost four years at the ACLU, I've attended numerous press conferences where proposals we oppose were being announced. Because of the proximity of this office to the state capitol, each opponent press conference that I can recall attending has been at the state capitol, and that's basically neutral ground.

But on Friday I attended a press conference outside that comfort zone when I went deep into the lair of the Pennsylvania State Police for an announcement by PSP and the FBI that PSP's intelligence center has been certified by the FBI as a "fusion center." Essentially, this means that PSP officers and civilian workers and FBI agents will work side-by-side at PSP's intelligence center.

Before the press conference began, someone from the FBI asked me where I was from, and to their credit, I wasn't kicked out once I was identified as ACLU. Of course, with a room full of reporters, that would have made for a better story than the announcement of the certification. FYI, I didn't have to lie my way in either. At the security desk, they simply asked for a driver's license. Maybe I should have ID'ed myself as a blogger for Speaking Freely.

So what's wrong with fusion centers? Funny I should ask since that's the name of a report that national published late last year. The mere existence of fusion centers is not a civil liberties concern. Trouble lurks when there are not proper checks-and-balances to ensure that the information gathered by these centers is not abused. Around the country, some fusion centers have brought corporate and/or military personnel into the process. Federal guidelines also encourage the practice of data-mining, and some fusion centers have collected non-criminal information on private citizens.

I had to chuckle when one of the officers from PSP said that they track hits on the feds' terrorism watch list, in light of our announcement earlier this month that the watch list now has over one million people on it, including Nelson Mandela, the late 9/11 hijackers, the late Saddam Hussein, and Senator Ted Kennedy.

After the press conference and tour were over, I was escorted out by a communications officer from PSP. I asked her about oversight, and while she didn't directly answer that question, she said that this is all information they can collect, anyway.

Unfortunately, we know that both the FBI and PSP have conducted surveillance on and infiltrated Pennsylvania residents who were simply exercising their first amendment rights. Before the Iraq War, the FBI watched the Thomas Merton Center, a peace group in Pittsburgh. Before the 2000 GOP convention in Philadelphia, PSP infiltrated an activist street theater group, and a month before that, PSP abused activists at the National Governors' Association meeting in State College.

We'll need to watch the people who are doing the watching.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Friday First Amendment Roundup: July 25

It was a big week for free speech in the arts: the Third Circuit defended Janet Jackson's infamous wardobe malfunction, struck down the "Child Online Protection Act" yet again, and protected depictions of animal cruelty. Meanwhile New York State seeks to censor video games, Minneapolis prepares for protesters, and a Utah resident has found a new use for the Constutition - fighting parking tickets.

Let's start with COPA, the internet censorship bill that has now been blocked six times by federal courts, including twice by the Supreme Court. Ostensibly intended to protect minors from viewing porn on the internets (as we all know, Ted Stevens tubes are full of pr0n), COPA imposes stiff criminal penalties on any internet proprietor who allows a minor access to material deemed inappropriate. The law was passed in 1998, fast on the heels of the Supreme Court's defeat of the Communications Decency Act.

[As an aside here, how amusing is this new "1984" method of naming legislation? No more naming bills for what they do ("Labor-Management Relations Act") or for the authors ("Taft-Hartley Act"); now it's all about PR maneuvering, where the most awful bits of legislation get the happiest-sounding names. The USA-PATRIOT Act, the Child Online Protection Act, the Sunshine and Rainbows Act - okay, so I made that last one up.]

The ACLU represented numerous online proprietors opposing COPA, arguing that the bill is overreaching, overburdening, and redundant considering the abundant filtering software available to parents who wish to limit the internet access of their children. The Justice Department responded with an argument based on every person's greatest fear that his or her pants might fall down. Get ready to see a metaphor stretched:

"During oral argument, Justice Department attorney Charles W. Scarborough argued that the First Amendment does not prohibit Congress from adopting a "belt-and-suspenders" approach to addressing the compelling government interest of protecting minors from accessing harmful material on the Web, with filters acting as the "belt" and COPA as the "suspenders."

But American Civil Liberties Union attorney Christopher A. Hansen argued that, under the First Amendment, if the belt works at least as effectively as the suspenders, then the government cannot prosecute people for not wearing suspenders."

All joking aside, COPA is a horrible piece of legislation that would impose an enormous burden on any person who posted any material deemed even slightly objectionable to some parent somewhere. I also take issue with this concept of the internet "violating community standards." It seems to me that the internet is in itself a community, with its own standards, and one of those is a high tolerance for expression.

The glory of the internet is that it allows a free and open exchange of ideas, unprecedented in history. Internet users at large seem willing to abide the ocassional intrusion of objectionable material in the interest of protecting the larger good. This law would undo all of that, in the interest of protecting children from seeing boobies. Thanks to the courts for protecting our tubes.


We move from belt-and-suspenders metaphors to a wardrobe malfunction of another sort. Unless you've been living "under a rock in a cave on Mars with your eyes closed and your fingers in your ears*," you could not have missed the uproar over Janet Jackson's right nipple's split-second cameo at the 2004 Super Bowl. It's been a little over four years since the FCC [in the interest of protecting children from seeing boobies] slapped broadcaster CBS with a $550,000 fine. On Tuesday, the Third Circuit tossed out the fine, dealing what one law professor called "a slap in the face for the FCC."

It's a triumph for those many Americans who don't consdier a woman's nipple to be profane, but the legal ramifications are a big unknown, as the country awaits the Supreme Court's consideration of FCC regulations this fall.

The immediate ramifications of Nipplegate were profound and obvious, as TV stations rushed to implement time-delays and began censoring anything they feared might bring the wrath of the FCC. If anyone doubts that the result was censorship, take a look at PBS, which now produces two versions of most documentary programs - one intact, and one for those who prefer World War II without all those swear words and nipples.

One only has to look this far to see how COPA, if passed, would be enforced. It's certainly reasonable to want to keep young children from accidentally happening across internet porn, but cases like "Nipplegate" show just how little it takes to set the censors off.

* to paraphrase Cecil Terwilliger


On to the animal cruelty decision, which will be a little harder for supporters of those first two decisions to stomach - particularly since the victor in this case is a guy who sold videos of dog fights for profit.

In a 10-3 decision, the Third Circuit ruled unconstitutional a law that criminalized the sale of "depictions of animal cruelty," ruling that such depictions are protected under free expression law, and do not merit exception the way that, for instance, child pornography does. According to Shannon P. Duffy at the Legal Intelligencer:

"Smith said he disagreed with the government's argument that depictions of animal cruelty "can appropriately be added to the extremely narrow class of speech that is unprotected."

Instead, Smith concluded that the government had shown no "compelling interest" in prohibiting such speech -- since every state already criminalizes acts of animal cruelty -- and that the law failed to pass a "strict scrutiny" test because it was not narrowly tailored."

Now, animal cruelty turns my stomach, and I can see the noble intent behind a law like this, but allow me to speak on behalf of what I consider a good decision. Rather than consider some guy selling dog fight videos, think of pieces produced with artistic intent. There have been any number of artists whose works have been labeled as animal cruelty, and whatever side you come down on, this law would not address the production of that art, but rather criminalize the sale or transfer of any reproduction of that art.

This is one of those cases where "the price of freedom" means tolerating, and even defending, a practice that one finds morally repugnant - which is something the ACLU is well-known (some would say notorious) for. It's certainly a decision that's open to debate, and I'd be interested to hear some opinions.


On to a few shorters items from the past week:


In a move opposed by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the State of New York has passed a grand plan to censor video games. The State has declared illegal the sale of any video game that does not prominently display a rating, and outlawing any system that does not feature technology allowing parents to block games.

It's amazing to watch history repeat itself. Just as the Comics Code Authority is losing its power and the MPAA is being sidestepped by unrated DVD releases, New York State goes and puts legal authority in the hands of the voluntary-censor ESRB. Will any new media ever emerge without parents and lawmakers responding with fear?


Preparing for the Republican National Convention later this year, Minneapolis has dispatched ten new officers termed, in grand Orwellian style, "dialogue officers." Also known as "free speech liason officers," these ten have begun meeting with the Justice Department and with groups they expect to protest, in an effort to prevent... well, I'm not sure exactly what. Here's how one of the officers explains it:

"The whole goal is to try and reach out to groups that are going to protest. We recognize their free speech rights, but the concern on our end is that we don't want anybody to get hurt or have any property damage," said Bill Blake, a Minneapolis officer taking part in the initiative.

This seems like it could be a really great idea on behalf of the Minneapolis PD, to open a dialogue between the Justice Department and protesters at the GOP convention. I do find it a bit amusing that all ten officers have a background in hostage negotiation - which may come in handy if the Minneapolis convention goes the way of the 2004 New York Convention.


Finally, a somewhat lighter story: A 28 year-old resident of Provo, Utah is doing Tom Jefferson proud and finding an innovative new way to apply the Constitution: fighting parking tickets.

DonCarlos Wells has filed a motion claiming that Provo's permit-only parking ordinances, which span entire neighborhoods, violate the constitutional right to assembly because they render it impossible for guests to park in those neighborhoods.

According to the Utah Daily Herald, when Wells first stated his argument in court, the prosecuter laughed - but I don't think it's all that absurd. I'm not a lawyer, but applying a blanket permit ordinance over an entire neighborhood does seem an undue burden on residents and any visitors they may like to welcome to their homes. Wells's argument seems even stronger when the prosecuter is quoted as saying things like "The Supreme Court doesn't recognize [the right to association/assembly] in the context of social associations."

So freedom and liberty apply only to statesmen, not to kids who just want to play X-Box? That doesn't seem quite right to me.

Wells describes the Provo permit-only parking ordinance as a "money grab," claiming that the $10 per offense fine is just low enough that most people will decide it's not worth fighting and just pay it.

According to the Daily Herald:

Property owners in the Foothill Park area, which includes the neighborhood near Seven Peaks, can get up to two permits for $15 apiece. They can also get up to six temporary permits three times a year for $2 apiece to accommodate visitors.

That's $15 per year, for the right to park one car in the public street in front of your own home. And you can have to up to two of them, entitling you to park up to two cars. Six temporary permits three times a year works out to a total of 18 visitors per year that Provo will allow you to receive, provided you are willing to pay $36 for the privelege of having friends who own cars.

Best wishes DeCarlos. I think you may have an argument here.

Chris in Philly

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Friday First Amendment Roundup

A new feature collecting first-amendment related news from around the country. I'm not promising this will happen every Friday, but I'll do my best. And now I'm thinking I should have called it "First Amendment Rodeo!" Oh well. Here we go!!

We start in Philadelphia, where the Third Circuit dismissed a civil suit against the city by Repent America, stemming from the arrest of eleven Repent America members at the 2004 "OutFest" LGBT block party in Center City.

As the Delaware County Times reports, the court ruled that while Repent America had the right to be present at the event (overruling a lower court ruling that the permit issued to event organizers PhillyPride effectively shut Repent America out) but that they crossed a line by intentionally disrupting the permitted event.

World Net Daily, always a fascinating read, offers their own (somewhat slanted) take on the ruling.


Frank D. LoMonte has a guest column at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about attempts to limit the speech rights of public high school students across the country, including some here in Pennsylvania. Not satisfied with being little dictators inside their own walls, some school administrators now want the power to discipline students for their speech outside of school. These are the first few aftershocks of Morse v. Frederick (AKA "Bong Hits 4 Jesus"); where once schools taught their students civics, the lesson now is "sit down, shut up, and do as you're told."


On the international stage, the Beijing Olympics are casting a spotlight on many Chinese human rights offenses (including an alleged instruction from Chinese authorities that bars near the Olympic Village are not to admit anyone black or Mongolian) but also on the speech-limiting practices of American corporations (like Google and Microsoft) doing business in China.

The United Nations, meanwhile, is considering a resolution that would criminalize any criticism, parody, or defamation of any religion. Similar laws already stand in many nations - including Canada, where people are sued with some regularity for critical comments or jokes directed at religions. Julia Duin at the Washington Post fears the UN restrictions would be so strict that "anybody anywhere could sue for merely having hurt feelings."

Arlen Specter and Joe Lieberman agree, and took time out to write a piece for the Wall Street Journal saying so. Congress is currently considering three separate bills that would protect Americans from being sued in foreign courts over Constitutionally-protected comments.


On the topic of religion and offense, how about that New Yorker cover, huh??

Jayne Lyn Stahl at the Huffington Post casts the rollicking fracas over the cover in the light of history, presenting reflections on free expression and offensiveness from some folks you may have heard of - including Richard Nixon ("the rights of free not carry with them the right to advocate the destruction of the very government which protects the freedom" - good old Dick!), FDR, and Salmon Rushdie ("What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.")

I especially love that Rushdie quote. After all, speech that offends no one requires no law to protect it. Right?


Speaking of offensive speech... The US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces ruled that a white-supremacist soldier's racist AOL profile was protected by the First Amendment because he did not direct the statements at anyone in particular (a majority of the world's population, sure, but no one in his unit) and "they did not interfere with his job performance or with any military mission," and that he could therefore not be disciplined or discharged because of the profile.

One wonders how an Army paratrooper's job performance is not impaired when he identifies his race as "Aryan," quotes "the imprisoned matyr" [sic] David Lane, and recommends a book in which white Christians kill a mixed-race couple, and when said Army paratrooper's job partly entails making informed decisions about what people he should and should not shoot. One of the five justices did file a dissent.

Still, I guess it's good to see that even if you're enlisted, the Constitution still protects your right to express yourself as a racist jerk.


Finally, on the Establishment Front (all quiet since Christmas - right, Bill?) the Texas State Board of Education has approved an elective Bible course to be taught in public high schools. Now, before you go and assume the Board went off half-cocked (a little Texas humor for you, there), read what the Dallas Morning News has to say:
"Among those who urged the board to issue specific guidelines for the class was Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, who helped write the 2007 law. Mr. Hochberg warned that without specific guidance from the state, some schools would run afoul of the First Amendment requirement of religious neutrality for such classes."
Of course, in the end the majority of the Board voted just to approve "a Bible course" and not to issue any guidelines to tell schools how they should go about teaching it.

"Attorney General Gregg Abbott has told the baord that while the state standards for the Bible class appear to be in compliance with the First Amendment, his office can't guarantee that the courses taught in high schools will be constitutional because they haven't been reviewed.

Critics contend that the board standards for the course are so vague and general that many schools might unknowingly create unconstitutional Bible classes that either promote the religious views of teachers or disparage the religious beliefs of some students."
A Bible class that promotes the religious views of the teachers? In Texas? I don't see what everyone is so worried about. I mean, how often do you hear about teachers pushing their religious views on students?

Sarcasm aside, Texas Board of Education, let me be the first to say: "Thank you for your contribution to the ACLU."

So in conclusion: Texans have never been big on the separation of Church and State. (Sorry, I couldn't resist!)


Two small notes:

If you missed the New York Times FISA ad that ACLU ran this week, you can see it here.

And lastly, most of you will (hopefuly) be as happy as me to read that Proposition 8, which would ban same-sex marriage in California, is currently trailing in polls 51 to 42 percent, with less than four months remaining until the vote.

Chris in Philly

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Saying 'no' to...federal funding

Refusing government funding--it's an illogical idea, no? Not when the money is mandated for ineffective programs that are rich in censorship, misinformation and cross the line of the separation of church and state. So it goes with Title V funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programming.

Last Wednesday the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published this article on the state's refusal to accept Title V funding.

So far, two letters to the editor, "Sensible Rejection" and "Teach What Works" have appeared in support of the article (and the refusal).

Pennsylvania is just one of the many states to refuse the funding.

Perhaps we're heading in a direction that champions access to comprehensive information and knowledge?

Ellen at Duvall

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Is this lady the coolest or what?

According to ProgressNowAction, that pesky First Amendment interfered with one of Sen. John McCain's supposedly public town hall meetings:
On orders from McCain's security detail, Denver police escorted a 61-year-old woman away who was waiting in line to attend a so-called town hall meeting with McCain that was billed as open to the public.

Fortunately, these folks weren't dealing with just anybody. They were dealing with a librarian. As Rachel Maddow said on Countdown, those people are "trained democracy super heroes."

The incident was captured on videotape and posted on YouTube:

Ed Brayton at the excellent blog Dispatches from the Culture Wars has a post on it as well.

So here's what I'd like to propose: We need to teach those folks who would bully 61-year-old ladies into giving up their constitutionally protected free speech rights as to just what the First Amendment is all about. So next time McCain comes to your town, convince your Mom to hold up a similarly worded sign. When the security thugs enlist the local police force, you tell your Mom that defense of the First Amendment is worth getting arrested for. Tell her it would make her the bestest Mom ever. You know she'd do it if you ask. Moms are like that. I know my mother plans to be there. Just as soon as I ask her.

Lauri in York

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"They failed freedom. We're suing."

I spent about two hours last night perusing the internet about the FISA bill. The reaction to the ACLU's announcement that we will go to court to stop this law has been swift and overwhelmingly positive, so I'd like to share the email sent last night to national's listserv.

Dear Andy,

Today, elected officials in Washington sold out the Constitution -- again.

Cowed by the Bush administration’s pre-election scare tactics, the Senate passed privacy-stealing FISA legislation undermining your Fourth Amendment rights.

This is not a “compromise,” as some in Congress would have us believe. The only thing they compromised is your freedom. Donate to the ACLU, and stand up for your rights.

The FISA Amendments Act allows for mass, untargeted and warrantless surveillance of all communications coming into and out of the United States. And to top it off, it hands immunity to telecom companies for their role in domestic spying. This means your phone calls can be tapped and emails read with virtually no proof of threat, and there's no chance to learn how the telecoms invaded your privacy.

It’s outrageous, unconstitutional and un-American. That’s why the ACLU is prepared to challenge this unconstitutional law the moment President Bush signs it -- and you can rest assured they’ll be meeting our lawyers in court.

Help the ACLU protect your privacy. Donate now to the ACLU to defend your rights.

In one fell swoop, Congress has not only legalized the Bush administration’s secret NSA spying program, it has given the government even more power to listen to our phone calls and read our emails than even the Bush administration illegally claimed for itself under its secret program. And, by granting telecoms immunity, it greatly harmed the chances of ever learning the extent of the administration’s lawless actions.

Stand with the ACLU in defending your rights. Support the ACLU’s lawsuit and all of our other critical work defending the Constitution.

While politicians lack resolve, the ACLU and its supporters do not. Stand with the ACLU by making a gift today.

In defense of freedom,

Anthony D. Romero
Executive Director

Andy in Harrisburg

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Prof Turley: Fourth Amendment "eviscerated" and other FISA outrages

Well, the fix, errrrr, the vote is in. The U.S. Senate, including PA Senators Arlen Specter and Bob Casey, today voted today to make the Fourth Amendment and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act mere guidelines, rather than law. The FISA Amendments Act allows the government to spy on Americans without ever telling the FISA court who they're spying on or why they're doing it.

Writer Glenn Greenwald of and law professor Jonathan Turley have been among the clearest voices on this issue. Here's Turley on last night's Countdown.

National ACLU's Amanda Simon blogged the debate, including this:
Specter followed Leahy and said passing this law without knowing the full details of the program is like buying a pig in a poke.

And then Specter voted for the bill. Ol' Arlen has mastered the technique of arguing against a bill that he plans to vote for.

I did chuckle, though, when I opened my email and had a message from national's listserv with the subject line, "They failed freedom. We're suing." Here's national's press release, announcing the ACLU's intention to go to court over this abomination.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Civil liberties summer reading list

SF is not going to become a place where authors can pitch us to read and review their books, so any writers out there, don't bother writing us that email. But the two books I've most recently completed have a civil liberties connection, so this seems like as good a place as any to share.

I most recently finished Freedom for the Thought that We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment by Anthony Lewis. This was a great book for learning more about the history of free speech and free press in the United States. (Despite the title, the book focuses on speech and press and not other aspects of the 1st A.) This book is a reminder that we really are in the high time of free speech in America.

The book reads a bit like a history text, but it is a relatively easy read. Lewis has a topic for each chapter and then explains key cases on that topic.

Before that, I finished off The Devil in Dover: An Insider's Story of Dogma v. Darwin in Small-Town America by regular SF contributor Lauri Lebo, aka "Lauri in York". This was a great read. I killed it off in five days, which is highly unusual for me. I had multiple sittings where I read 50-75 pages at a time, again highly unusual.

The real draw of Lauri's book is the narrative she spins. The book reads like a novel, and it's incredible that it's non-fiction! As a native of this area, Lauri gives great context of life in south central PA, which adds flavor to the broader story of America's battle over evolution.

For fans of the first amendment and civil liberties, check these out!

Andy in Harrisburg

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Successes at the state capitol

Yesterday I referenced the recently completed spring session of our state legislature, which came to a close last Friday. We had a few successes and no defeats over the last month that are worth reporting.

Most significant, on June 27, the PA House passed House Bill 2537, a bill blocking the Commonwealth from seeking certification in Real ID, by a unanimous vote. The day of the vote, I talked with a reporter who started the interview by saying, "You're not going to call it a real nightmare, are you?" Clearly, our branding of Real ID had sunk in.

One of the more surreal moments of my ACLU career came during this debate. Rep. Sam Rohrer (R-Berks County) introduced an amendment to block PA from participating in any federal law that requires the collection of biometric data. Rep. Rohrer, one of the most conservative members of the legislature, and Rep. Babette Josephs (D-Philadelphia), one of the most liberal members of the legislature, argued on the floor about who had the support of the ACLU. (For the record, we neither supported nor opposed the Rohrer amendment. We supported HB 2537 with or without the amendment.)

Now it's on to the Senate. If this bill were signed today, PA would become the 11th and largest state to opt out of Real ID, a crumbling federal program.

But that wasn't our only task at the capitol in the last few weeks. We also beat back a proposal I took to calling The Illegal Clothing Act of 2008, an amendment that would turn "criminal gang activity" into a criminal offense, as if the existing criminal conspiracy laws aren't enough. And how would law enforcement identify a criminal gang member, according to this amendment? The clothes he wears. Where he lives or spends time. Photographs (of what, exactly, we don't know). This idea was so bad we could call it the Fund the ACLU Act. If it ever became law, we would likely litigate against it and we would likely win. Here's our memo to the House on this issue (PDF).

This inane idea died without ever coming to a vote, but we expect to see it back in the form of legislation since the amendment was based on a bill that was introduced this session. Fittingly, in the midst of that work, Penn State released the results of research showing that investment by the PA Commission on Crime and Delinquency in juvenile crime prevention and intervention programs saved the Commonwealth more than $300 million dollars, money that otherwise would have been spent on court costs, incarceration, law enforcement, etc. That study is available here (PDF).

With the General Assembly now on break until after Labor Day, they can do no harm to civil liberties.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Monday, July 07, 2008

A plague on both their houses: Part....oh, hell, I've lost track

The state legislature is on summer break, which means civil liberties are safe once again. And it means I can get back to the most important part of my job- blogging.

About a month ago, I said that both candidates for president will likely provide opportunities for criticism throughout the course of the campaign. That was said in the context of criticizing Senator McCain. As if on cue, Senator Obama has provided not one, not two, but three opportunities for critique over the last three weeks. In no particular order...

Faith-based initiatives. Obama announced his intention not only to continue President Bush's faith-based initiative program but to expand it by giving more tax dollars- your money- to it. Unlike Bush, Obama also said that those receiving the federal funds may not discriminate in hiring.

Let's be clear. Faith-motivated folks do a lot of great work. I talk with clergy and others motivated by faith on almost a daily basis. But giving tax dollars to faith-based programs, even with Obama's pre-conditions, tap dances dangerously close to the line of government-endorsed religion. Under Bush, this program was largely a giveaway to his evangelical friends.

And enforcing Obama's requirements is tricky. Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United was on The Bill Press Show last week, and he said that a recent report from the Government Accountability Office showed that one-third of recipients of faith-based initiative funding did not know that they are not supposed to proselytize in carrying out their programs.

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette responded with an editorial on Sunday.
This costly course is headed for the choppy seas that the founders wisely avoided. Sadly, it seems Mr. Obama needs his own wall of separation between pandering and policies.

The death penalty for child rape. Must the senator from Illinois pander to the lowest common dope, errr, denominator? It's not possible for someone who has been through the Illinois death penalty experience to support expanding capital punishment, is it?

It is well-known and well-documented that the death penalty is falling apart. Since SCOTUS reinstated the DP in 1976, 129 innocent people have been sentenced to death (that we know of). Some innocent people have probably been executed. There are all kinds of problems on indigent defense, the impact of race (of the defendant and the victim), the costs of carrying out capital punishment, the negative effects on victims, and on and on. In fact, just last week, a state commission in California- the state with the largest death row in the country at 600-plus- released a report showing that Cali's system of capital punishment is "close to collapse."

And, most telling of all, advocates for children and sexual assault victims do not support the death penalty for child rape. This from the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault:
Victim advocates have long been concerned that the death penalty for child sexual assault cases could backfire and result in lower reporting rates and fewer convictions of sex offenders.

The issue of child sexual abuse is complex. Most child sexual abuse victims are abused by a family member or close family friend. The reality is that, child victims and their families may feel greater reluctance to come forward, knowing that doing so could effectively send a grandparent, cousin or long time family friend to death row. In addition, capital punishment trials are notoriously stressful for the witnesses involved, and typically face a lengthy appeals process. This forces the child witness to relive these painful events over and over again, severely disrupting their healing process.

FISA. The night of the Potomac primary, Obama gave a speech in Wisconsin in which he went on a riff about protecting the Constitution. Four months later, he'll vote for a bill that expands the government's power to conduct surveillance without a warrant and allow those who broke the law in previously conducting such surveillance off the hook. Apparently, the Obama campaign sees the Constitution as a tool to win primary votes, rather than rock-solid principles to stand by. Following the Arlen Specter model, Obama will support efforts to strip telecom immunity from the bill...and then will vote for the bill if/when that amendment fails.

Obama has been getting hammered for his position and, to his credit, replied to his critics. Then Glenn Greenwald pointed out everything that's wrong with Obama's stance on the issue.

This is why I do issues work, rather than partisan politics.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

July 4: A day for repentance

Wow, columnist Chris Satullo raised the roof today in The Philadelphia Inquirer. This is a must-read. Here's a snippet.
This year, America doesn't deserve to celebrate its birthday. This Fourth of July should be a day of quiet and atonement.

For we have sinned.

We have failed to pay attention. We've settled for lame excuses. We've spit on the memory of those who did that brave, brave thing in Philadelphia 232 years ago.

The America those men founded should never torture a prisoner.

The America they founded should never imprison people for years without charge or hearing.

The America they founded should never ship prisoners to foreign lands, knowing their new jailers might torture them.

Such abuses once were committed by the arrogant crowns of Europe, spawning rebellion.

Today, our nation does such things in the name of our safety. Petrified, unwilling to take the risks that love of liberty demands, we close our eyes.

Andy in Harrisburg

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