Friday, August 29, 2008

Friday First Amendment Roundup: August 29, 2008

With apologies, this week's edition is going to be super-short; I'm just a bit too busy with the work they actually pay me for, but I'm stealing a few minutes because I don't want to let a week go by unnoticed.

The Second Circuit heard arguments this week in an ACLU suit opposing FBI National Security Letters and the gag orders placed on recipients of those letters.


Following the close of the Beijing Olympics, human rights groups are criticizing China's failure to keep promises of free speech and civil liberties protection, and are petitioning the IOC to require better free-speech assurances from future Olympic hosts.


The ACLU is suing the chief of police of Flint, Michigan (you may remember him for his opposition to baggy pants) over his order preventing Flint police from speaking with the media.


As the Democratic National Convention plays out this week, including a number of arrests of demonstrators, the mayor of Denver says he has worked to make his city as accessible as possible to protest groups.


Three journalists from New York, in Minneapolis ahead of the Republican Convention to document police conduct this week say they were arrested, searched without their consent, and had their property confiscated and held for two days. The Deputy Chief of Police says the group was suspected of trespassing in a rail yard (a felony) and gave "evasive answers" to officers.


The ACLU of Delaware has filed a suit against Wilmington police, who do not have a record as big fans of the constitution, for roughing up and arresting a 68 year-old filmmaker who attempted to document a traffic accident outside his home in 2006. Other onlookers were allowed to stay and watch while Mark Marquisee, who was about 20 feet from the accident scene and emergency responders, was tackled, handcuffed, and left to suffer in a hot patrol car in the August heat.

That's it for now - next week I'll be back with pretty pictures and misguided attempts at humor. I promise.

Chris in Philly

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Friday First Amendment Roundup: August 22, 2008

Another relatively quiet week in the United States. Maybe the totalitarians in our country are too busy hypocritically shaking their heads at China and Russia to spend time attacking our own constitution?

Starting off once again in China, the civil-liberties
Goofus to our Gallant - though that's being a bit generous toward the US, I think.

This week Chinese authorities arrested two septuagenarian (nearly octogenarian) women and sentenced them to a year of "reeducation" through forced labor. Why? Because they demonstrated against the demolition of their homes in Beijing in order to prepare for the Olympics. According to the Associated Press the "reeducation system" in China is over 50 years old, and sentencing does not require a criminal trial - the police are free to send people into reeducation at their discretion, for up to four years.

The two women, ages 77 and 79, remained at home three days after their sentence, but were "under surveillance by a government-backed neighborhood group." That last bit reminds me of
Operation TIPS. Hey, at least in this country when we imprision septegeunarians without any trial, we don't make them work. Hell, we barely let them go outside!


So, as US citizens (including our President) are busy decrying the abuse of human rights in China, the Executive Branch is sneaking up behind us with vastly expanded new powers - who's in charge over there, again?

Democratic Senators Feingold, Kennedy, Durbin and Whitehouse (whom I really, really want to be President someday, solely for the sake of nomitive determinism) sent an open letter to Attorney General Michael "Not every violation of the law is a crime" Mukasey expressing their concern over the new guidelines being drafted for the FBI, which would appear to send us back to the Hoover era, including unresricted surveillance of American citizens without any documented suspicion, interviewing neighbors and coworkers under the false pretext of suspicion, and persecuting Americans based on race, religion, and First Amendment activities. You know, the kind of stuff the FBI has been doing secretly pretty much forever.

The Senators have asked Mukasey not to sign off and finalize the new guidelines until Congress has had input on them. What do you suppose are the Vegas odds on that?


A federal judge has ruled that
Arizona cannot enforce a state law that would prosecute an online merchant for selling anti-war t-shirts.

Dan Frazier, of Flagstaff, makes and sells t-shirts that read "Bush Lied - They Died" and then list the names of all US troops who have died in Iraq. An Arizona law, enacted in 2007 with almost no debate, forbids the sale of any product that uses the name of a military casualty without family permission. Louisianna, Tennessee and Oklahoma also have similar laws.

Judge Neil Wake this week
blocked Arizona from enforcing its law, stating that Frazier's shirts represented "core political speech." The ACLU represented Frazier in his case; the ACLU is also representing him in a federal lawsuit, where the family of a Tennessee soldier killed in Iraq is attempting to sue Frazier for $40 billion. Lee Phillips, a Flagstaff attorney who represented Frazier on behalf of the ACLU, pointed out that the Arizona law may still be enforceable in cases where the products in question were not motivated as political speech.


Some news in the epic battle between God and Darwin this week - and I've got to say, for an all-powerful Deity, God sure does lose a lot.

In California, a coalition of Christian schools is suing the State University system, demanding that California state colleges award credit for the religious high school courses they currently do not recognize. For instance, the group wants high school students who were taught that the world was created in seven days, just like the Bible says, to get full credit for biology class.

The Christian schools claim that refusal to award full academic credit for these courses represents religious discrimination; the University System responds that it was not discriminating against the religious message in the course material, but rather the total lack of any actual history, science, or critical thinking. The California case was filed in 2005 and dismissed this past week. The Association of Christian Schools International, who filed the suit, has appealed.


A pair of mayors, separated by geography, are this week united by their contempt for free speech.

Colonial Beach, VA mayor Frederick Rummage [whose name will become ironic in the next paragraph] was so horrified by an area journalist's research and investigation at Town Hall that he kicked her off the premises, and has declared that all citizens will now be required to file written Freedom of Information Act requests before they can review any of the city's public records or documents.

In a conversation with local reporter Marty van Duyne, Mayor Rummage "accused [reporter Anne Congdon] of “moving around, lurking, and looking” for no other reason than to find out about internal operations." According to van Duyne, Rummage seemed baffled and annoyed that Congdon would spend six hours investigating, researching, and (wait for it!) rummaging through public records. Well, yeah Fred... she's a reporter.

Rummage has declared that he is rewriting the city's FOIA guidelines. His practices appear to be a blatant violation of Virginia's sunshine laws. As of yet no suit has been filed.

Meanwhile in Manalapan, New Jersey, former major George Spodak doesn't care for criticism, and he is going to do something about it! Spodak has filed a libel lawsuit against a number of anonymous bloggers who have called him, according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger "a liar, a crook, a bum, a pedophile, an alcoholic, a wife beater -- and worse."

Last year, Spodak's attorneys subpoenaed Google in order to learn the identities of these bloggers, but a state Superior Judge threw out the subpoena. Spodak's attorneys feel that this lawsuit has a better chance, because Spodak has been out of office for 24 years and is no longer major, but now a private citizen. The Star-Ledger points out that Spodak is still very active in town politics, and frequently speaks at township meetings.

"You have the constitutional right to speak anonymously," said Matt Zimmerman, attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is representing the anonymous bloggers. "You can't use the court as an investigatory tool simply to out critics."
"Anonymity is fine," said Spodak's attorney Lawrence Kleiner. "But I don't think you can accuse someone of being a pedophile ... and hide behind the Constitution."


The California Supreme Court has ruled that while doctors are free to live by their religious principles, when they operate a business their religious freedom does not permit them to deny medical services based on illegal discrimination.

The case in question involved Guadalupe T. Benitez, who sought to be artificially inseminated at North Coast Women's Care Medical Group by Dr. Christine Brody. Dr. Brody refused to perform the procedure on Benitez, claiming her religious beliefs would not allow her to help impregnate an unmarried woman. Benitez is a lesbian, with a committed partner who joined her at meetings with Dr. Brody.

The Court's ruling says that, while any doctor may legally refuse to perform any procdure based on religious beliefs, he or she may not choose to perform that procedure on some patients, and then deny it to others.
As the LA Times puts it:
A clothing store may choose not to sell polo shirts. But once it sells polo shirts, it cannot withhold them from customers based on their race, religion, sexual orientation and so forth. Various religious groups, including Jewish and Islamic clergy, sided with the doctors in this case. It's intriguing to ponder what they would make of a doctor who declined, based on personal convictions, to provide care for patients who belonged to religious minorities.

You may remember Ponce de Leon school district in Florida - they are the school district that was recently ordered to allow students to form a Gay-Straight Alliance (and to allow them to use the word "gay.") Well, this past week the school district began court-mandated sensitivity training, and for some reason the AP saw it as newsworthy (enough to merit a 925-word article) that the town at large supports the former high school principal.

This is former principal David Davis [$5 says his friends call him "Dave"] who, when one of his seniors (identified only as Jane Doe) told him she was being taunted by her classmates as a lesbian, admonished her that homosexuality is wrong, outed her to her parents, and labeled her a sexual predator, ordering her to stay away from children. Former principal Davis who suspended her friends for showing support by wearing gay-pride T-shirts and buttons. Former principal Davis who ran his own miniature homophobe HUAC investigation, asking dozens of students whether they were gay or associated with gay students. According to the AP:
"Davis embarked on what can only be characterized as a 'witch hunt' to identify students who were homosexual and their supporters, further adding fuel to the fire," U.S. District Judge Richard Smoak recounted in his ruling. "He went so far as to lift the shirts of female students to insure the letters 'GP' or the words 'Gay Pride' were not written on their bodies."
So thanks, AP, for informing us that the residents of Ponce de Leon, Florida, generally regard David Davis as a hero.

"David Davis is a fine man and good principal, and we are a gentle, peaceful, Christian, family-oriented community," said Bill Griffin, 73 and a lifelong Ponce de Leon resident who is no relation to the district superintendent. "We aren't out to tar and feather anyone."
Not tarred and feathered, no, but Jane Doe and many of her friends report that they have been ostracized by their community. Heather Gillman, who took part in the suit, reports being harassed by an employee at the local Wal-Mart for trying to "bankrupt the school district," and some residents refuse even to talk to students involved in the suit.
"Many in the community support Davis and feel outsiders are forcing their beliefs on them. Griffin, who kicked Davis out of the principal's office but allowed him to continue teaching at the school, said high schoolers here aren't exposed to the same things as kids in Atlanta or Chicago."

"We are a small, rural district in the Bible Belt with strong Christian beliefs and feel like homosexuality is wrong," said Steve Griffin, Holmes County's school superintendent, who keeps a Bible on his desk and framed Scriptures on his office walls."
We here at Speaking Freely may not have quite the reach that the AP does, but here's a message for "Jane Doe" and Heather Gillman and all the other students who have the misfortune of growing up in a place like Ponce de Leon, Florida: the rest of us are on your side. Oh, and also: get the hell out of Ponce de Leon. As soon as possible. I hear Atlanta and Chicago are nice.

[A quick plug here for Slap Upside The Head, a Canadian blog whose cartoons I loved so much that I used them without permission. Go visit the blog so they won't get mad!!]

Chris in Philly

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Boss (hearts) Dover

This morning, I'm staring bleary eyed into the computer screen. "Thunder Road" is playing on my I-pod.

The screen door slams
Mary' dress waves
Like a vision she dances across the porch
As the radio plays

I'm jealously thinking that I will never write a narrative that so completely encapsulates not the big story, but a perfect little moment, a tiny shiny sliver of existence. But that's why he's the Boss.

Bear with my overburdensome prose. I'm sleepy.

Last night, I stayed up far too late with some good friends - Friends made through Dover's famous intelligent design trial. Vic Walczak, ACLU-PA's legal director, Steve Harvey, one of the Pepper Hamilton attorneys who represented the plaintiffs, his wife Mimi, Cyndi Sneath, one of the trial's 11 parents who believed in standing up for the religious freedom of their children, her husband Paul and my husband Jeff.

As everyone who knows Walczak is already aware, the guy is a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. Huge. So, when he learned that Springsteen was playing in Hershey, Walczak suggested that a bunch of Dover folks go to the concert. So that's where we were. Just a few yards from the stage.

Springsteen is, of course, a natural draw for these folks, those who believe in defending the Constitution. Springsteen's support of civil liberties is evident to even the most casual listener. On his latest CD Magic, he sings about the past eight years in "Livin' in the Future":

My ship Liberty sailed away
On a bloody red horizon
The groundskeeper opened the gates
And let the wild dogs run

Anyway, the concert, by the way, was incredible. And it was noted by the press that Springsteen played a song that hasn't made his set list in years: "Part Man/Part Monkey".

Well, there's a story about why it was played last night. It's not a big story. Just a perfect little moment. Here's the little background that you won't read about in the reviews of the concert.

Every morning before the 2005 trial, Walczak climbed in his car headed for the courthouse and ritualistically played the song. That's because in August 2005, Springsteen introduced the song at a New Jersey concert with the words, "Folks in Dover aren't sure about evolution. Here in New Jersey, we're counting on it."

Well did God make man in a breath of holy fire
Or did he crawl on up out of the muck and mire
Well the man on the street believes what the bible tells him so
Well you can ask me, mister, because I know
Tell them soul-suckin' preachers to come on down and see
Part man, part monkey, baby that's me

So, knowing that Dover had made it onto Springsteen's radar, Walczak saw an opportunity. He called a few friends last week, who had a few friends... And, Mr. Springsteen, no doubt because he supports the ACLU and the Bill of Rights, agreed to not only meet us, but he also granted Walczak's rather giddy request. "We're kinda hoping you'd play 'Part Man/Part Monkey'?" Springsteen, more than a little hesitantly, asked Walczak who he should dedicate the song to.

Later, after first telling the audience that the band didn't remember how to play the song, Springsteen dedicated "Part Man/Part Monkey" to, "the Dover parents and sound science education." Just as Walczak had asked.

And then, of course, the E Street Band nailed a terrific Bob Marley-infused version.

So, there you have it. It's not a big story. Just a perfect little moment.

Lauri in York

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Language of violence

"Words can reduce a person to an object
Something more easy to hate than an animate entity
Completely disposable, no problem to obliterate."
--The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy

I've been mulling this post for weeks.

There are some around here who think immigration will be the great civil rights struggle for years to come. The Nation magazine has referred to the treatment of Latinos in Georgia as "Juan Crow".

Sadly, when times are tense in civil rights struggles, people die. Think four little girls in a Birmingham church. Think students registering people to vote in the deep South. Think Matthew Shepherd.

And, now, think Luis Ramirez.

Last month Luis Ramirez, an immigrant from Mexico, was beaten to death on a street in Shenandoah, PA. Witnesses claim that his attackers- allegedly a group of local teens- yelled racial slurs during the attack.

Ramirez is probably not the first immigrant to be attacked since the immigration debate heated up three years ago. He probably won't be the last. But his death hits close to home because it happened so close to home.

And it happened so close to Hazleton, which is just twenty miles away.

We all believe in free speech. Any dope can say any dopey thing he or she wants.

And we also know that words have power. Let there be no doubt that the rhetoric of the immigration debate played a role in the death of Luis Ramirez. Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta, CNN's Lou Dobbs, cheese steak king Joey Vento, and others made racism cool again. Racism is once again socially acceptable.

Syndicated columnist and Bloomsburg U journalism professor Walter Brasch recognizes this:
Unindicted co-conspirators are millions of Americans and the far-right mass media.

It’s common for people in a nation that is in a Recession to complain. They’re frustrated with their lives, with bad working conditions, dead end jobs, and low incomes. They’re frustrated by skyrocketing prices, obscene corporate profits, and do-nothing legislators. The problem isn’t “us,” they believe, but “them.” Others. Outsiders who “invaded” America

A century ago in the coal region, good ole boy Americans complained about the Irish and Poles who took “our” jobs in the mines. For decades, Whites kept Blacks out of almost all but the most menial jobs, and then lynched those who they found to be too “uppity.” During the 1920s and 1930s, the masses of Germans, trying to rationalize their own economic distress, decided the problem was the Jews—and Americans went along with that ethnic racism. We blame Asians. Africans. Muslims. Anyone who’s different.

In today’s America, it’s the “Illegals,” the code-name for undocumented Mexicans.

(Full disclosure: Brasch is a member of the board of ACLU-PA's Central Susquehanna chapter.)

Barletta, for his part, fails to see the power of his words.
Barletta said he does not believe his campaign against illegal immigration in any way created an atmosphere that encouraged the killing of Luis Ramirez.

Illegals. Illegal aliens. Criminals. Invaders. Hordes. Mexcrement, as one visitor to SF said during the Hazleton trial. These are words used to de-humanize other human beings. And once they are dehumanized, it becomes much easier to dispose of them.

The Anti-Defamation League recognized this in its report Immigrants Targeted: Extremist Rhetoric Moves into the Mainstream, which was released last fall.
"The Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis were not the only ones who saw an opportunity in the national debate over immigration to sow the seeds of racism as a means to derail immigration reform," said (ADL national director Abraham H.) Foxman. "While reasonable people can disagree about border control and the appropriate parameters for immigration reform, the debate has been tainted by the virulent anti-immigrant message employed by a handful of groups. The real victims in this are Hispanic-Americans and other immigrants who are being unfairly targeted, demeaned and stereotyped."

Death is the silence in this language of violence.

(For more on the fallout in Shenandoah from the death of Luis Ramirez, check out this report from WITF-FM, the NPR affiliate in Harrisburg.)

Andy in Harrisburg

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Friday First Amendment Roundup: August 15, 2008

I'm pressed for time this week, so this is going to be both late and half-assed. I didn't want to miss a week. Sorry for phoning it in.

We've talked a bit about concerns for
a free press at the Beijing Olympics; amid the several scandals that have come from the Olympics thus far, we have this terrific YouTube video of ITV correspondent John Ray being arrested for covering a "Free Tibet" protest. My favorite part is when he opens the window and continues his report from inside the police van that's arresting him.

There have also been indications that the Chinese government is suppressing investigations of the stabbing that killed one family member of the US Men's Volleyball coach and injured another. Reporters in China have had their notebooks and tape recorders confiscated.


In Massachusetts, the state is fighting hard to make permanent a temporary restraining order against
three MIT students who announced a security flaw they had discovered in state transit subway cards; the students, and many around the internet, are claiming that the restraining order violates the students' speech rights, and that the case raises questions about free speech rights for hackers and security firms. According to CNet (see link above) and several other sources, prior Supreme Court rulings would seem to side with the students - however some say the current court's ruling in Morse v. Frederick ("Bong Hits 4 Jesus") may indicate otherwise.


Henrico County, Virginia
has declared it illegal for anyone to ask for money, pass out fliers, or sell anything on any public roadway. It just wouldn't be a week in America if legislators in some podunk county didn't just up and declare themselves exempt from the Constitution.

The highlight of the Richmond Times-Dispatch article, for me, is this:

"[Richmond Times-Dispatch publisher Thomas] Silvestri asked county leaders to modify the ordinance so it wouldn't restrict the sale of newspapers "or other activities similarly protected by the First Amendment."

The supervisors, however, agreed with the county attorney's recommendation not to make an exception for any group. The new ordinance takes effect immediately."

By the way, please visit that Times-Dispatch article, if only to see the comments left by readers, who are almost unanimously in favor of this law. Incredible.


A former high school English teacher at Tippecanoe High School in Tipp City, Ohio was dealt a setback in a lawsuit challenging the non-renewal of her contract in 2001. Shelley Evans-Marshall was in her second year of teaching when she assigned several controversial books as part of a classroom unit on censorship. Marshall was summarily censored.

This week US District Judge Walter Herbert Rice ruled that the school board's right to control a school's curriculum outweighs the academic freedom of the teacher assigning reading materials.

One of the challenged books Marshall assigned, Siddhartha, was actually on the school's approved reading list. The other hot-button book, "Heather Has Two Mommies," was not assigned directly by Marshall - rather, Marshall told her students to choose books from the American Library Association's "100 Most Challenged Books" list. The school board elected not to renew her year-to-year contract based not solely on her assigning the books in question, but because she "refused to communicate with the administration and refused to be a team player."

So who's really to blame here? Librarians. Steven Colbert was right. Librarians are hiding something™.

Hey, at least the students got a really solid lesson on censorship.


A former police chief from the Pittsburgh suburb of Harmar is suing the township for reinstatement, saying that he was fired in retaliation for an ethics complaint he fired against a township supervisor - who happens to be the wife of the previous Harmar police chief, who was also fired and sued for reinstatement.


A U.S. District Judge ruled that it is unconstitutional for a library in Upper Arlington, Ohio to bar groups with a "quintissentially religious" purpose from using library meeting rooms. The library's standing policy allowed groups to discuss religion on the premises, but barred them from engaging in prayer, singing, or other "inherent elements of religious service."

Judge George C. Smith ruled that such policies constitute viewpoint discrimination and issued a permanent injunction preventing the library from using those policies to exclude groups from using its meeting rooms. He did not issue any ruling regarding the library's policy of precluding religious services.


Lastly, let's do a little feature I call Op-Ed Spotlight [has anyone noticed yet that I'm just making up features?]

  • Here's a Washington Times Editorial discussing the ramifications of last week's Third Circuit ruling against Temple University's former harassment policy.
  • Walter Brasch opines on the hypocricy inherent in George W. Bush's demand of greater freedom in China
  • Andrea Wittchen or Lower Saucon Township (PA) writes to The Morning Call to defend the rights of voter registration volunteers at the Lehigh Valley's annual Musikfest event. Her letter is in response to this August 7 article, about Obama campaign volunteers who dared to step outside the designated boundaries of "Free Expression Plaza."
Chris in Philly

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

No condom = trust and commitment?

And so ends the What's the New What segment, "Sex Without Condoms is the New Engagement Ring", aired July 24th:
"I'm sure you have something to say about Pendarvis' new What. Don't be shy. Get it all out by e-mailing us"

And oh, oh boy, how the responses flooded discussion boards and blogs across the web.

The segment, which features Youth Radio's Pendarvis Harshaw, discusses how some youth who find themselves in committed, monogamous relationships are intentionally having sex without condoms after being clinically screened for sexually transmitted diseases and infections (including HIV)and receiving a negative from both partners.

NPR Listeners
did NOT want to hear this. They threatened to revoke their NPR contributions and even their listenership, and commented:
"I am absolutely disgusted by your program"

"Pendarvis Harshaw's essay should be on the WTF program."

Some argue that these youth are acting irresponsibly by intentionally engaging in unprotected sex while others argue that actually having conversations about sex and behavior and even taking the step to be tested is responsible behavior.

RH Reality check picked up and reports on the controversy (the segment on What's the New What begins at 16:15--I apologize for not editing) and discusses the piece's significance with its creator. Amanda Marcotte points out that this piece brings into question HOW we address youth and how we interact with youth.

Apparently, youths' choices are overshadowed with how every and anyone else thinks youth should be behaving. Well, if we are unwilling to even hear the reality of the experience of youth, how can we expect to connect with them or teach them about anything, including safer sex?

Additionally, if listeners are so opposed to youth sharing their stories (about sex) and realities (about sex) with other youth, going as far to say that NPR should not tolerate stories such as Harshaw's and should not broadcast it, what forms of censorship are they imposing?

The controversy does not stop here, however. Oh, no. The author's style, speech patterns and music choices are all brought into question. I wonder how the piece would have been received if any one of these factors were altered, even slightly. Many of these factors, including thoughts on race, class, gender and sexuality are all addressed through blogs such as (where I originally found the piece), jezebel and boinboing.

Ellen at Duvall

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TRUMBO Philadelphia premiere

Just a quick plug here for those of you in the Philadelphia region: tomorrow (Friday, August 15) at 7:30 PM, the ACLU of Pennsylvania will host the Philadelphia premiere of the documentary film Trumbo, at the Ritz at the Bourse in Old City. The movie features readings from the letters of Dalton Trumbo, the Hollywood screenwriter who was blacklisted and imprisoned after refusing to turn over names to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

Following the showing will be a Q & A with Helen Manfull, who is featured in the film. She discovered Trumbo's letters and edited them into the published collection.

Prof. Sherman Labovitz will also join the discussion. Prof. Labovitz spent time in prison for his political beliefs during the McCarthy era and is the author of Being Red in Philadelphia: A Memoir of the McCarthy Era.

There is no extra cost above the usual movie ticket. Tickets may be purchased at or at the Ritz box office. We'll have a table set up, so if you do attend please stop by and let us know you're a Speaking Freely reader!

When: Friday, August 15, 7:30 pm
Where: Ritz at the Bourse, Fourth Street between Market and Chestnut, Philadelphia

Chris in Philly

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Friday, August 08, 2008

Still clearly about power and control

The ACLU is working hard to keep prison officials in check in Arizona.

Read more about it here!

Ellen at Duvall

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Friday First Amendment Roundup: August 8, 2008

This week we had Bush making a little use of the Bully Pulpit before the Beijing Olympics, victories for student speech, and two decidedly different cases involving minors and sexual expression.

Let's start with the President. Normally when the Bush administration gets mentioned here, it's not in a positive sense (we are, I remind our readers, a non-partisan organization - but the President has never been a great friend of the Constitution) but for once, we can give him a little credit. In a somewhat bold move, on Thursday the President spoke in Bangkok against China's human rights violations, including imprisoning political dissidents and pressured China to offer its citizens more freedom.

Granted, there are plenty of us who wish Bush would be a stronger advocate for freedom and human rights here in the States; but
many expected the President to keep quiet and polite on China's heinous human rights record. The speech ticked off Chinese officials, who responded with statements including "The Chinese government puts people first" and "Chinese citizens have freedom of religion. These are indisputable facts."

Of course Bush went on to do interviews with Chinese state-run media, who cut apart and edited his words to say pretty much whatever they wanted - a move for which he is (as he is no doubt used to) being criticized.


Back at home, the ACLU has had to back down on their demands on behalf of protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Denver after a federal judge ruled that the current plans do not infringe on the protester's first amendment rights. Those plans include a 47,000 square-foot "free speech zone," surrounded on three sides by concrete barriers and chain-link fence [You can speak freely, as long as you do it in this here cage] and a distance of at least 200 feet between protesters and the delegates at all times.

The AP quotes Marc Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado, as explaining changes in the law since the September 11 attacks have favored security over expression. "That's sad," said Silverstein, "but that's the state of the law."


To see the consequences of "free speech zones," take a look at Mary S. Rider of North Carolina, who was arrested for leaving the designated protest area at the execution of death row inmate Samuel Fillipen in 2006. On August 8 Rider was ordered to pay a fine of $354; she refused, saying that she was expressing her rights to free speech and religious expression by protesting against the death penalty. In lieu of her fine she will now serve 15 days in prison.

Here's a new alternative energy source: let's hook a generator up to Tom Jefferson. At the rate he must be spinning, we should be able to power the Eastern Seaboard.


Also sentenced this week was Karen Fletcher of Donora, PA. Fletcher owned and operated a web site,, featuring fictional text-only depictions of child rape, kidnapping, and torture. Fletcher said that she believed she had been abused as a child, and that writing and publishing these stories helped her find solace from her own inner demons.

Fletcher plead guilty, but her sentence still flies in the face of legal precedent. Because her site did not exploit any actual children, but featured only works of text-only fiction, precedent suggests that her work was protected by the first amendment. Blogger Timothy Sandefur has posted a great explanation as to why the Supreme Court says that child pornography is not constitutionally protected, but text-only fictional works like Fletcher's are.


Meanwhile in Hamburg, Iowa, a state judge has defended as free expression the right of a 17-year old girl to dance nude at a local strip club. It's a pretty entertaining story, really. Here are some of the highlights:
  • The strip club, called Shotgun Geniez (yes, that's how they spell it) was owned at the time by the former mayor of Hamburg.
  • The girl in question, who was 17 at the time of her fully-nude performance, is the niece of a local county Sheriff.
  • As part of his defense against the three counts of public indecent exposure, the club's owner claimed Shotgun Geniez was an "art establishment," and as proof pointed out that patrons were sometimes given sketch pads so they could draw the "models."
In the end, judge Timothy O'Grady did not have to rule on whether the dance was art or not, because he ruled that the club meets the standard definition of a theater, and that fact exempts Shotgun Geniez from Iowa obscenity laws that grant first-amendment based exemption to theaters, art centers and museums. Owner/former major Clarence Judy was acquitted of all charges. Prosecuters have not yet decided whether to appeal the case to the Iowa Supreme Court.


A U.S. District judge in Las Vegas has ruled that the Las Vegas police department cannot prevent one of their detectives, an Orthodox Jew, from wearing a beard. The question of whether he can wear his yarmulke will go to a jury. This is one of those things I'd probably understand better if I were a lawyer.


The California State Senate has passed a bill that protects teachers who promote free student speech from retaliation. The bill, supported by the California Newspaper Publishers, was inspired by Janet Ewell, a teacher in Garden Grove, CA who was removed from her position as journalism advisor when she allowed too much freedom in the school newspaper. This is from the Orange County Register article:

In 2002 after allowing students to run several negative editorials in the student paper on dirty bathrooms, bugs in cafeteria food and teachers not being around enough during lunch and after school to help students, Ewell was told by then-principal Gene Campbell that she would be removed from her adviser role. She said he told her journalism students that the editorials were part of his decision to "take the journalism class in a new direction."

She fought his decision and was reinstated with a warning, and the student paper, La Nueva Voz, under her direction took first place two years in a row in student journalism competition.

But after a time switch that kept many students from being able to take the class, Ewell thought the class was being discontinued for the fall of 2005. She was surprised when she discovered that another teacher would fill the journalism adviser role.

The new bill will not do much for Ewell, but it will help to protect other teachers like her, teachers who stand up for the constitution and teach students that they do in fact have rights, from administrative retaliation. We need more teachers like Janet Ewell.


Finally, back here in Philly, the Third Circuit has upheld a federal district court decision that Temple University's former anti-harassment policy was in fact an unconstitutional speech code. The original lawsuit, filed by the Alliance Defense Fund on behalf of Christian DeJohn, a former Temple student and sergeant in the PA Army National Guard, charged that Temple's policy was vague and overbroad, and that because of the policy DeJohn felt that he could not freely express his views about women in the military.

DeJohn had claimed that Temple refused him a graduate degree due to discrimination against his views, but the university responded that their refusal to grant a degree was based only on his poor academic performance. The district court dismissed this portion of DeJohn's claim, citing Temple's academic freedom to evaluate the performance of their students, and these claims were not a part of the Third Circuit appeal.

In their ruling, the Third Circuit ruled that the harassment policy was unconstitutional because it outlawed speech based on the speaker's purpose or intent, even if it did not disrupt the school's operations. They also ruled that outlawing "hostile" or "offensive" speech limited legitimate political speech.

Chris in Philly

Friday, August 01, 2008

Friday First Amendment Roundup: August 1

After major action in the Third Circuit last week, this week has been a quiet one - which gives us an opportunity to look at some of the smaller cases happening around the country. Like a mountain eroded by wind, our civil liberties are whittled away, pebble by tiny pebble, by the forces of oppression and control - and the ACLU is always there glue? I don't know.... What holds mountains together?

I usually try to start here at home in PA, so if you haven't already seen it on our front page, check out the story of Marshall Pappert of Bridgeville, a suburb of Pittsburgh. Marshall was convicted of harassment for phoning his borough manager at his business number in regard to a civil complaint about pollution and noise from a nearby business - note that Marshall had been designated by his neighbors as a spokesperson for this issue.

I feel bad laughing at peoples' misfortune, but the very idea that a person should be charged with a crime for calling a civil servant about a civil complaint is so ludicrous, I hope Marshall will understand if I chuckle.


The FCC has announced that Comcast violated the law when they blocked users' ability to access certain types of internet traffic, and Comcast will likely face reprimand. The ACLU and other groups are hailing the decision as a step forward for Net Neutrality; others are saying this will only serve as the "shot heard around the world" in a war over Net Neutrality.


The buildup to the Beijing Olypmics continues (only a few days remain now!) and issues of free expression abound. Reporters already in Beijing have found that their internet access is heavily restricted in accordance with China's Orwellian policies on controlling "truth." Meanwhile Wikipedia, which is traditionally blocked in China, has suddenly become available across the country. Citizens of China better soak in all the information they can, however; experts assume the site will be blocked again once the Olympic Games are over.


Before we leave issues on the interwebs, take a look at this case in Yale, which has drawn back the curtain on anonymous web posting. I won't even pretend to understand the heavy implications here - I'm pretty sure I'd need a Yale Law degree to do so - but the basics are interesting.

For more than a decade people have been posting all manner of things on the internet, under the premise that their identities would always be hidden behind a mask of anonymity. Trouble is all of those years of embarrassing posts live on, preserved in perpetuity on millions of servers, and if and when that mask of anonymity is removed, those statements can come back to bite people - like, for instance, destroying their budding legal careers.

Even more interesting is the current list of defendents:

"PaulieWalnuts, Cheese Eating Surrender Monkey, The Ayatollah of Rock-n-Rollah, Patrick Bateman and HitlerHitlerHitler"
In the words of Banky Edwards, "that's what the internet is for: slandering people anonymously!"


As China contemplates civil liberties in preparation for the Olympics, so Minneapolis and Denver face similar decisions in preparation for the Republican and Democratic conventions, respectively.

"Hmmm.... Do we allow Americans to assemble and speak? Or do we arrest and jail protesters and then try to cover it up?"

In Denver, the City is pursuing a recent popular trend, informing the protesters that it's fine if they express themselves, just as long as they do it far away where no one will notice them. The ACLU and other groups have filed suit against the City to allow the protesters to actually stand near the thing they are protesting. The trial ended Thursday and a federal judge is considering her ruling.

Fox News reports that the City of Denver this week reassured the ACLU and other groups that they are not planning to attack protesters with an urban legend: the brown note, which legend holds will cause uncontrollable instant defacation in all who are beholden to it. It's a great article because it reports on a real news story, but also uses an unattributed 'rumor' to make the ACLU look like morons. Fox News, how do you do it?

Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, the RNC has thanked the City for their hospitality by presenting a gift they've always wanted: a surveillance society!! Minneapolis has reportedly been installing new surveillance cameras all around the Xcel Energy center.

"We've been planning this for years. The fact that we were able to install it using RNC money is just to our advantage," Tom Walsh of the St. Paul Police Department said.

It still seems to me a little bit like when a guy gives a girl lingerie, you know? It's more of a gift for him, really.


Moving on, it's time for Religious Freedom Rodeo!


Lastly, a big good-on-ya to U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore, who ruled on Thursday that Okeechobee High School in Okeechobee, Florida, could not refuse to recognize a student-founded gay-straight alliance. It's a victory that will hopefully carry over to the many other schools around the country where students who are trying to spead a message of tolerance find themselves stymied by administrators who are intolerant or uncomfortable with the concepts of sex or homosexuality.

My favorite part of this story is that, while an injunction forced the school board to allow the group to meet, the board refused to let the students use the word "gay." That's just a beautiful illustration of the kinds of people we're talking about here.

I wonder what word the students used instead. I hope it was something really offensive.

Chris in Philly

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