Wednesday, May 31, 2006

For once, good news

South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families collected more than twice the required number of signatures to get the abortion ban on the ballot in November. Once 16,728 signatures are validated, the extremist bill, which was passed a few months ago and scheduled to go into effect on July 1, will be suspended.

MSNBC/Reuters: Group could halt South Dakota abortion ban

Andy in H-burg

Pleased to meet me

Warrantless wiretapping, tracking the phone calls of millions of Americans, presidential signing statements signaling the president's willingness to ignore the law, torture, secret prisons, kidnapping, and spying on peaceful political groups like the Thomas Merton Center and PETA weren't enough to lead the Congress to realize that we are dealing with an executive branch that is abusing its power and that the legislative branch has an obligation to check this overreaching. But a nighttime search of a representative's office has awakened Congress from it's slumber/stupor.

Caroline Fredrickson, director of our Washington Legislative Office, had this to say:
As Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Congressman Sensenbrenner can seek to compel administration officials to testify on these gross violations of privacy and fundamental freedoms. The recent search of one congressional office by federal law enforcement officials has made some members of Congress keenly aware of the White House's extraordinary claims of executive power. We hope that this outrage and concern, which hits home for lawmakers, extends to the millions of Americans whose call information and conversations have been monitored by the National Security Agency without a court order. Congress must put an end to the administration's stonewalling and investigate these gross abuses of power.

ACLU applauds Chairman Sensenbrenner hearing on Capitol Hill search, says other Bush Administration conduct must be examined

Andy in the HBG

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Librarians speaking freely

Don't get in the way of a PO'ed librarian. That was a lesson for us kids who made too much noise and, in turn, got the dirty looks and verbal wacks from the local library staff.

But, in this case, we're not referring to talking too much. This is about losing your freedom of speech. As pointed out last month here at SF, our librarian clients in a Connecticut case involving the Patriot Act were gagged by the government just as the Patriot renewal debate was at its height. In April, the government lifted the gag, and today our clients spoke out for the first time.
"As a librarian, I believe it is my duty and responsibility to speak out about any infringement to the intellectual freedom of library patrons," said Peter Chase, Director of the Plainville Public Library and Vice-President of Library Connection in Connecticut. "But until today, my own government prevented me from fulfilling that duty."

"Even though our identity was public due to the government's own mistakes, they still insisted we could not speak," said Barbara Bailey, Director of Welles-Turner Memorial Library in Glastonbury, Connecticut, another of the librarians involved in the ACLU lawsuit. "It was difficult to sit among colleagues and listen to them discuss 'John Doe.' I had to work hard to keep my mouth shut, or I would risk jail time."

Check out today's press release from national ACLU.

Andy in H-burg

Thursday, May 25, 2006

More evidence that this country is sliding into Big Brotherdom

There are many reasons I don't want to live in NYC, but Mayor Bloomberg just gave me a new one. From today's NYTimes:

NEW YORK (AP) -- Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg thrust himself into the national immigration debate Wednesday, advocating a plan that would establish a DNA or fingerprint database to track and verify all legal U.S. workers.

The article goes on:

Bloomberg compared his proposed federal identification database to the Social Security card, insisting that such a system would not violate citizens' privacy and was not a civil liberties issue.

"You don't have to work -- but if you want to work for a company you have to have a Social Security card," he said. "The difference is, in the day and age when everybody's got a PC on their desk with Photoshop that can replicate anything, it's become a joke."

The mayor said DNA and fingerprint technology could be used to create a worker ID database that will "uniquely identify the person" applying for a job, ensuring that cards are not illegally transferred or forged.

Great idea. There's no way that database would be abused. No sirree.

At least Philadelphia just wants to videotape our every move in public.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Can you hear us now?

Today the ACLU of PA (along with 19 other ACLUs across the country) filed a complaint with the state Public Utility Commission on behalf of a group of individuals and organizations who are concerned about the privacy of their telephone records. The complaint asks the Commission to order the telephone companies to reveal what information they have disclosed to the NSA and asks the Commission to hold such releases in violation of Pennsylvania law and to prohibit future releases. Here's more information about the case.

Our website has information about how to file your own complaint (and I hope you will).

Monday, May 22, 2006

FOIA Blues

Maybe I'm naive.

When the ACLU of PA started hosting workshops encouraging people to file Freedom of Information Act requests, I thought that we would actually get information back that told us (one way or another) if the various government agencies had any information on the person submitting the request.

Not so fast.

The responses have started trickling in, and for the most part, the agency to which the request was submitted has refused to grant the request for (what seems like) very minor reasons.

Maybe I wouldn't have been so naive if I had first read John Ashcroft's FOIA memorandum, which was issued in October of 2001 and supersedes previous FOIA policies.

OK, so it doesn't prove a whole-hearted crackdown on the release of information by the government (and there are no black helicopters circling the sky). But it certainly suggests that Ashcroft deliberately tried to create a chilling effect on the release of FOIA material.

Lisa in Pittsburgh

Friday, May 19, 2006

Join us on Tuesday to Tell Specter to Investigate - Not Legislate!

Our national office recently alerted us to the fact that Arlen Specter - you know, the one who walks around threatening the funding of the NSA unless more information comes out about illegal spying, who repeatedly asks "where's the outrage?" about the secret spying - will be introducing a really, really bad bill on the NSA as soon as next Thursday. It would retroactively authorize the president and NSA's actions, expand the executive branch's powers and make judicial checks to protect innocent Americans optional.

But we're not taking this lying down. We're organizing an emergency press conference/demonstration next Tuesday at 12:30pm outside the Federal Building in Philadelphia (where Specter's Philly office is) on the 6th street side. Bob Barr, the former congressman, will be a featured speaker.

It's really important that we get as many people as possible to attend. We want to show Specter that the outrage is right HERE!

Sara in Philly

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Legislator shopping

A great crowd of about 50 concerned citizens came out last night to the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg for a screening of The ACLU Freedom Files: Gay & Lesbian Rights. We were also fortunate to be joined by community activist Kathleen Daugherty and Dan Miller of Harrisburg City Council. Big city folk can kick around little ol' Harrisburg, if they wish, but how many PA towns would elect an openly gay man?.

The crowd was clearly energized and concerned about where we are heading on the debate over g&l rights. Me, I'm an eternal optimist. A majority of Americans support civil unions, opposition to gay marriage continues to drop, and the younger generations are very accepting of homosexuality.

But it's easy for me to be an optimist because I don't have to live with the discrimination and second-class citizenry every day. I can appreciate the anxiety of our LGBT amigos.

There were a few stories about meetings with legislators. Perhaps the most absurd was the story of the legislator who told a gay couple that they should go "state shopping" to find a gay-friendly state. A response from the crowd was that we should go "legislator shopping."

We'll keep pushing the ball forward, knowing that we're on the right side of history.

Andy in the HBG


I have such mixed emotions about Senator Specter right now. Sometimes I almost let myself develop feelings for him, but then he just keeps doin' me wrong.

But what I would have paid to be a fly on the wall for the fight today between Specter and Feingold about gay marriage.

"I don't need to be lectured by you. You are no more a protector of the Constitution than am I," Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., shouted after Sen. Russ Feingold (news, bio, voting record) declared his opposition to the amendment, his affinity for the Constitution and his intention to leave the meeting.

The sad thing is that Specter's right. Neither of these men (or the parties they represent) have exactly been Knights Templar for the Constitution.

Speaking of mixed emotions, I was at an event last week with Jim Hightower, who described mixed emotions as "your daughter coming home from the Prom with a Gideon's Bible under her arm."

I thought that was kind of cute. But then, I'd had a few.

Lisa in Pittsburgh

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Ever get that feeling that someone's watching you?

I'm sitting here in my office, listening in on a conference call about the NSA spying on phone calls, when I received this story from ZDNet News:

A prominent Republican on Capitol Hill has prepared legislation that would rewrite Internet privacy rules by requiring that logs of Americans' online activities be stored, CNET has learned.

The proposal comes just weeks after Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Internet service providers should retain records of user activities for a "reasonable amount of time," a move that represented a dramatic shift in the Bush administration's views on privacy.

Wisconsin Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is proposing that ISPs be required to record information about Americans' online activities so that police can more easily "conduct criminal investigations."
Rest of article

Sigh. Do we have to resort to paper and lemon juice for private communications now?

Crazy Talk

Have people heard about this? Carol Fisher, a woman from Cleveland, was arrested while posting a 'Bush Step Down' poster on a telephone poll (and possibly beaten up as well). The posting was apparently in violation of a city ordinance.

Kinda sketchy, but OK, fine.

But it seems that opposition to the President was enough for a judge to determine Carol 'delusional' and submit her for psychiatric evaluation.

From last Wednesday's story on Cleveland Indymedia:
Judge Timothy McGinty forcibly incarcerated Carol Fisher in the psych unit of the Cuyahoga County Jail in downtown Cleveland, where she now sits for an indefinite period of time.

In a hastily called hearing yesterday, Judge McGinty made a highly unusual and outrageous decision to force Carol to undergo a state psychological exam as part of her pre-sentencing investigation. From the very start of Carol's case, the judge has openly said that she must have mental problems for resisting an unlawful and brutal encounter with Cleveland Heights police. He went even further in yesterday's hearing, saying that her opposition to the Bush regime makes her "delusional."

And there's more...
He [Judge McGinty] also kept saying Carol "wants" to go to jail, and that she has a "martyr complex." When Carol tried to explain why she wouldn't take this [psychiatric] test, the judge's only response was, "I do not negotiate with felons."

Not only that,
...if she refuses the psych exam, she will be forcibly sent to North Coast Mental Institute for a 20 day evaluation.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that, after a fair amount of resistance, Fisher submitted to the evaluation last Friday.

At first I thought maybe Indymedia was making this up or exaggerating--it just seems too outrageous to be true. But no, after a Google search, I found it had been reported on quite widely.

Another source said that the judge declared Carol Fisher delusional because, by posting her sign, she demonstrated delusion by believing that Bush would actually care.

By that logic, could President Bush be declared delusional for believing that his immigration speech would actually increase his job approval rating?

Lisa in Pittsburgh

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Is this really what we're about now?

Bet you thought I'd be writing about the NSA stuff. Don't worry, I'll get there. But first I wanted to highlight a different abuse of power by the administration that hasn't gotten as much attention: extraordinary rendition, or basically kidnapping and torture. The practice involves US agents kidnapping foreign nationals in other countries (often European) and secretly transporting them to "black sites," where the are suspects are held incommunicado and subjected to torture and other inhumane treatment.

Last Friday the ACLU went into federal court on behalf of one victim of this repugnant practice. Khalid El-Masri is a 42-year-old German citizen and father of five young children, who was forcibly abducted while on holiday in Macedonia. He was detained incommunicado, beaten, drugged, and transported to a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan, where he was subjected to inhumane conditions and coercive interrogation. He was forbidden from contacting a lawyer or any member of his family. After several months of confinement in squalid conditions, he was abandoned on a hill in Albania with no explanation, never having been charged with a crime. He returned home, only to find that his wife and children had moved, as they believed he had left them. (They have since reunited.)

According to the ACLU's suit, soon after El-Masri was flown to Afghanistan. CIA officers realized that they had abducted, detained, and interrogated an innocent man. Tenet, former director the CIA, was notified about the mistake, yet El-Masri remained in detention for two more months.

In Friday's hearing the CIA argued that the case must be dismissed because of the danger that "state secrets" may be exposed, despite the fact that many of the facts have been made public. (Hmmmm, for some reason that argument sounds familiar. Oh, right. It's the one the Bush administration uses ALL OF THE TIME!)

If you want to read more about this practice or about this case in particular, check out the national ACLU feature on extraordinary rendition.

Sara in Philly

Monday, May 15, 2006

Ringing the warning bell

It's not just that wacko ACLU crowd trumpeting warnings of our Constitution Under Siege. The Patriot News of Harrisburg chimed in yesterday:
Big Brother is alive and well and going by the name of Un cle Sam. What isn't the government monitoring in our lives in these times?
Congress must agree to put an end to this large-scale governmental invasion of privacy, total disregard for the Fourth Amendment's protection against "unreasonable searches and seizures," and administration failure to seek and obtain legislative or judicial approval for its questionable activities.

Hanging in the balance may be the preservation of the Constitution itself as the stalwart protector of our rights and liberties.

Patriot News editorial: Official intrusions worsen

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The staff went to Utah and all I got was....

...some amazing stories about the work being done by the ACLU around the country.

Earlier this week, five of us from the ACLU-PA staff joined staffers from around the country for a conference in Park City, Utah. Although the conference was largely about "nuts and bolts", as ACLU-UT executive director Dani Eyre described it, it was a chance to hear about a lot of the other great things happening in the other 49 states that we often miss when we get caught up in our day-to-day. I want to share one such case, which was told during a workshop on the death penalty.

In the early years of this decade, death row in Mississippi was hell on earth. Think Abu Ghraib USA. The heat index in Unit 32C, the row, at the state pen in Parchman would reach 120 degrees in the summer. At night, prisoners had to wrap themselves in blankets from head to toe, in that heat, to keep from being eaten alive by bugs and rodents. 24 hours a day screaming could be heard, the raving of prisoners who had gone mad. Those who arrived at Parchman mentally ill became psychotic. Those who were healthy became mentally ill. The smell of sewage was always in the air as feces was everywhere. Water was often cut off for long periods of time.

In 2003, the ACLU took on these conditions, citing the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. You can probably imagine the backlash from some corners: They're animals. They deserve whatever treatment they get. Etc. But by the end of the trial, once all of the evidence had come forth, many of those same voices had changed their tune and recognized that, regardless of what crime they had committed, we do not treat people this way and that they are still human beings.

We won that case in 2003 and the ruling was upheld on appeal in 2004. It's old news, but it was news to me and maybe for some of you.

Ken Woolstenhulme, a Summit County commissioner, told the daily paper in Park City, "I don't particularly care for what they stand for." Well, I do, and I'm proud to work for this organization.

back on EDT,
Andy in H-burg

Oh, by the way, Speaking Freely won two Impact! Awards for breakthrough communications, one in the "web" category and the other for the overall "best in show" category. That was nice.

We are shocked, shocked to find data-mining going on here

Okay, so maybe we weren't surprised at the revelations in today's USA Today that the NSA has a massive database of American phone calls.

The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.

The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren't suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.

"It's the largest database ever assembled in the world," said one person, who, like the others who agreed to talk about the NSA's activities, declined to be identified by name or affiliation. The agency's goal is "to create a database of every call ever made" within the nation's borders, this person added.

The one bright spot? The phone company Qwest, which unlike the other big three, refused to participate in the program, despite the potential for lost business with the government.

Unable to get comfortable with what NSA was proposing, Qwest's lawyers asked NSA to take its proposal to the FISA court. According to the sources, the agency refused.

The NSA's explanation did little to satisfy Qwest's lawyers. "They told (Qwest) they didn't want to do that because FISA might not agree with them," one person recalled. For similar reasons, this person said, NSA rejected Qwest's suggestion of getting a letter of authorization from the U.S. attorney general's office. A second person confirmed this version of events.

Bravo, Qwest, for respecting the Constitution. If only our government did.

Sara in Philly

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

In Search of a 'Decider'...

So now the President is interested in relinquishing executive power?

From an editorial in today's LA Times:
In an interview with German television, Bush said: "I very much would like to end Guantanamo; I very much would like to get people to a court. And we're waiting for our Supreme Court to give us a decision as to whether the people need to have a fair trial in a civilian court or in a military court."

Oh really? As the editorial points out:
From his seemingly respectful reference to the court, one wouldn't guess that the Bush administration resisted any review by the Supreme Court of its handling of Guantanamo detainees, arguing unsuccessfully in 2004 that federal courts lacked jurisdiction.

And from our own Steven Shapiro...
Conversely, as ACLU Legal Director Steven R. Shapiro pointed out Monday, the president does not need Supreme Court approval to shut down Guantanamo or to give its inmates a fair trial. To use a term familiar to the president, he, not the court, is the "decider" when it comes to prolonging the detention of all those at Guantanamo.

I hope the irony wasn't lost in the German translation.

Lisa in Pittsburgh

Monday, May 08, 2006

What rhymes with "presidential signing statements"?

I actually paid attention in high school government class, and I'm pretty sure we never covered the concept of "presidential signing statements." From the Boston Globe:

WASHINGTON -- President Bush has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office, asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution.

Among the laws Bush said he can ignore are military rules and regulations, affirmative-action provisions, requirements that Congress be told about immigration services problems, "whistle-blower" protections for nuclear regulatory officials, and safeguards against political interference in federally funded research.

Legal scholars say the scope and aggression of Bush's assertions that he can bypass laws represent a concerted effort to expand his power at the expense of Congress, upsetting the balance between the branches of government. The Constitution is clear in assigning to Congress the power to write the laws and to the president a duty "to take care that the laws be faithfully executed." Bush, however, has repeatedly declared that he does not need to "execute" a law he believes is unconstitutional. Rest of article

I guess the Schoolhouse Rocks "How a Bill Becomes a Law" needs a little updating.

Pigs Fly, Hell Freezes Over - Tucker Carlson actually apologizes to ACLU

Those of you who watch MSNBC (which would make you one of about 10 people, I think) might have caught Tucker Carlson bashing the ACLU last week. What wasn't unusual was that he had his facts wrong about us. But what was unusual was that he actually corrected himself. I gotta give the man some credit.

Last week Carlson said the ACLU did not "stand[] up for" Rush Limbaugh while he was being investigated for allegations that he illegally obtained prescription painkillers. The truth was that the ACLU actually submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in Limbaugh's defense and did a lot of press on the issue. For more see the Media Matters story.

Judge Jones on Time's list of "100 Most Influential People"

Sorry for the brief time away, but the entire staff was busy at the membership conference in State College on Friday and Saturday.

Today's Patriot News has a nice editorial commending Judge John E. Jones III on being included in Time magazine's "100 World's Most Influential People." (For those who don't know, Judge Jones was the judge in the intelligent design challenge.) Go Judge Jones!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

An ugly picture of American methods

Some of the cases we take on make you want to laugh at the government's audacity (for instance, the one involving a man who was convicted of disorderly conduct for dancing in public). And others just make you want to puke.

Yesterday the national ACLU released information it obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests on Abu Ghraib and other detainee abuse. Recently the government was forced under court order to turn over 100,000 pages of information to the ACLU.

No wonder the government fought the requests. The picture they paint is truly disgusting.

According to one Defense Intelligence Agency document from 2004, Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top Army commander in Iraq at the time of the Abu Ghraib scandal, urged U.S. forces to 'go to the outer limits' to extract information from prisoners. (Last year the Army exonerated Sanchez of wrongdoing relating to detainee abuse.)

The documents show that senior government officials were aware of abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan before the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. Cases include assaults, punching, kicking and beatings, mock executions, sexual assault of a female detainee, threatening to kill an Iraqi child to "send a message to other Iraqis," stripping detainees, beating them and shocking them with a blasting device, throwing rocks at handcuffed Iraqi children, choking detainees with knots of their scarves and interrogations at gunpoint.

It's clear that while President Bush and other officials assured the world that what occurred at Abu Ghraib was the work of "a few bad apples," the government knew that abuse was happening in numerous facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of the 62 cases being investigated at the time, at least 26 involved detainee deaths.

The best part is Army spokesman Paul Boyce's defense. An AP story quotes him as saying "that just over 1 percent of the deployed force has been implicated in allegations of abuse." There are 133,000 troops in Iraq. When you consider the percentage of those 133,000 troops who even have access to prisoners, it's even more appalling.

This story seems to be slipping through the cracks, and I urge you to read the information on the national ACLU website about these horrifying tactics and pass it on to others. Thousands of documents have been posted on the website, which has a new search tool that allows people to read for themselves about what's not being reported in the media. (After all, they do have to reserve a certain number of column inches every day for updates on Brangelina.)

Sara in Philly

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Trouble with Free Speech...

The trouble with free speech seems to be that people only care when it is THEIR views being protected.

I was a legal observer for the immigration rally today in Pittsburgh. About 250 people marched through downtown, ending up at Senator Specter's office. Not bad for Pittsburgh, which doesn't have a very large (or organized) Latino community.

There was one lone counter-protestor. He was a fairly young guy--still probably in college. He had made a sign out of cardboard that said 'Seal the Borders' and stayed at the front of the march so that he would be seen by passersby (and interviewed by the media, which he was).

There were also a group of young demonstrators in the march--maybe ten of them, none of them Latino--that kept harassing the guy. They kept shoving him and his sign, and finally at the end of the march they took his sign forcefully and ripped it into pieces before him.

After his sign was ripped up, the guy walked away from the crowd. I went over to him. He was really upset and emotional--I even saw tears in his eyes. We talked for a little while and he asked me 'What about my free speech?'

I wished that I could have helped him or given him a good answer, but the ACLU only deals with government violations of civil liberties. I just offered to give him the pictures that I had taken of the incident, if he wanted them. To their credit, a number of demonstrators apologized to him for the actions of some of the participants.

I had very fixed feelings about it. I hated everything the guy had been screaming during the march. He was definitely a bigot, and even seemed a little nutty to me.

But I knew that the kids who tore up his sign expect THEIR free speech to be protected; in fact, that was precisely what they were exercising. But for them, freedom of speech only applied to the speech they liked.

It all seems very human and natural--the desire limit freedom of speech to that with which we agree; it's not restricted to any one part of the ideological spectrum. And maybe that's why that inclination needs to be fought so hard--it is just too tempting to want to shut up and shut down people we don't like.

Lisa in Pittsburgh