Wednesday, December 23, 2009

"Sleep in heavenly peace..."

Each year we decorate our office with the many Christmas cards we receive. It adds to the festive feeling of the season and we enjoy it. This email came from an anonymous author in Scranton. We've selected it as the best representation of what, for some, is clearly the spirit of the season.

Sent: Thursday, December 17, 2009 12:20 PM
Subject: Question????

The first question we have here at our scranton office is what is wrong with you Athiest Assholes. We recently heard on the news about the bullshit your group started at the Luzerne County Courthouse. Our economy is hurting, the spirts of our citizens are weak for many reasons, and at this time of year, many, close to all people look towards tradition as a sign of good things around the holidays. In one, threatening blow, by threatening to sue Luzerne County for helping keep hope in their citizens, you have done nothing but demoralize the area, and make yourselves look like total Assholes and Athiests. Keep you religious beliefs to yourself. Bow down to your budah or raghead or dot head, or indian gas station god, or whatever you probable domestic terrorists bow down to, and keep out of others innocent business.


All those who can't stand your kind

Proof read and approved by a company office of over 100!


Yup, that’s what it’s all about, that story recounted in scripture---the star, the angel choir, the “raghead” shepherds---the babe, born to show the world the true nature of love. . .and there you have it, just how far we’ve come in two thousand plus years.

Nancy in Philly

Virginia and Michigan win the Pennsylvania lottery

"Congratulations, Virginia and Michigan! You've just won millions of dollars from the commonwealth of Pennsylvania! All you have to do is house 2,000 of our inmates for about three years. How do you feel?"

It's a deal. The PA Department of Corrections will move 2,000 of its inmates to prisons in Michigan and Virginia, beginning in February. The move will cost PA about $135 million.

This is happening because prisons in PA are over capacity by about 7,000 inmates. While Michigan and Virginia hold our inmates, construction crews will be busy building four new state prisons here in our commonwealth. The construction costs alone will be nearly $1 billion.

Why is this happening? While groups like the ACLU of PA, the Pennsylvania Prison Society, and our allies have been advocating for years for alternative ways to deal with offenders, especially non-violent offenders like drug addicts and persons with mental illness, the General Assembly has been led around by the nose by prosecutors who wanted an increasing level of punishment.

According to testimony given by DOC Secretary Jeffrey Beard last month before a state Senate committee, 55 percent of new inmates admitted into state prisons last year were non-violent offenders, largely people who committed drug or property offenses. We're locking up people who need help, not prison time. (See the testimony I gave at that same hearing by clicking here (pdf).)

Although the commonwealth and some counties have implemented some programs to help people with drug addictions and mental illness who find their way into the criminal justice system, they haven't gone far enough. New data (pdf) from the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing shows that mandatory minimum sentencing has no impact on recidivism and deterrence and that most people can't even name an offense that carries a mandatory. The commission study recommends repealing or at least shrinking the drug-free school zone mandatory and increasing the minimum quantity of cocaine necessary to kick in a mandatory.

No one solution is a magic bullet to solve the problem of Pennsylvania's crowded prisons. But with the state corrections budget approaching $2 billion annually, in the midst of a financial crisis, the legislature cannot continue to stick its collective head in the sand. It's time to start listening to the ACLU of PA and our allies.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

'Tis the Season

The kitchen door in our Philadelphia office

Greetings in the Harrisburg office

Just a quick note of thanks to all of the kind people who have sent cards wishing us a Merry Christmas. They really brighten up the office.

Whatever you do or don't celebrate this time of year, or any other time of year, warmest wishes from your friends at the ACLU of Pennsylvania!

Chris in Philly

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Civil Rights Groups Sue City Of Pittsburgh Over Harassment And Intimidation Of Activists During The G-20 Summit

The ACLU-PA, along with the Center for Constitutional Rights filed suit this past week over the repeated attempts by city officials to suppress the free speech rights of demonstrators attempting to protest the policies of the G-20 Summit. The complaint alleges that the police engaged in a deliberate campaign of harassment and intimidation that prevented two climate and environmental-justice organizations (the Seeds of Peace Collective and the Three Rivers Climate Convergence) from organizing and supporting demonstrations. This lawsuit is the first of what will likely be several cases filed against the City of Pittsburgh and other law enforcement agencies for their interference with and harassment of demonstrators during the G-20 Summit and International Coal Conference.

December 14, 2009
Contact: Witold “Vic” Walczak, ACLU of Pennsylvania, (412) 681-7736

PITTSBURGH - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the Center for Constitutional Rights announced today they have filed papers to expand and continue a civil rights lawsuit against the City of Pittsburgh, city officials and police officers for their repeated harassment and intimidation of two climate and environmental-justice organizations whose efforts to organize and support demonstrations during September’s G-20 Summit were completely frustrated.

“The First Amendment does not allow the government to use possible vandalism by a few to justify suppressing the free-speech rights of many, but that’s exactly what Pittsburgh officials did during the G-20,” said Witold Walczak, the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s Legal Director and one of the groups’ lawyers. “Pittsburgh city officials must be held accountable for systematically and deliberately suppressing non-violent climate and environment-justice demonstrations.”

An amended complaint in the lawsuit, which was originally filed September 21, was filed late Friday night in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. The suit alleges that City of Pittsburgh officials deliberately adopted a strategy to harass, intimidate, discourage and ultimately prevent Three Rivers Climate Convergence and the Seeds of Peace Collective from exercising their constitutionally protected rights to free speech and assembly during the International Coal Conference and the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh during the week of September 20, 2009.

This lawsuit is the first of what is expected to be several cases filed against the City of Pittsburgh and other law enforcement agencies for their interference with and harassment of demonstrators during the G-20 Summit and International Coal Conference.

The suit names as defendants Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Director of Public Safety Michael Huss, Chief of Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Nathan Harper and Assistant Chief William Bochter, Assistant Director of Pittsburgh City Parks Michael Radley, and as-yet-unidentified police officers who will be named later. It alleges the defendants repeatedly violated the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments.

“City officials must be held accountable for their blatantly unconstitutional actions during the G-20 in order to help ensure that it doesn’t happen again,” said University of Pittsburgh Law School Professor Jules Lobel, Vice President of Center for Constitutional Rights and one of the attorneys representing the groups.

In addition to the delay and denial of G-20 protest permits that led to September lawsuits in federal court, the suit details an extensive and well-coordinated effort led by the City of Pittsburgh to surveil, harass, intimidate and prevent the Seeds of Peace food bus and Three Rivers Climate Convergence from holding their climate and environmental-justice activities, including the repeated detainment of the Seeds of Peace bus by dozens of armed police officers and the late night confiscation of Three Rivers sustainability fair tents and materials from their permitted location in Schenley Park which effectively ended their ability to demonstrate.

“Rather than seek to strike the difficult but necessary balance in such a high profile event between safety concerns and free speech, the City of Pittsburgh choose instead to use an overwhelming amount of resources and personnel to unconstitutionally harass and stifle dissent, including this group of peaceful activists whose sole mission was to support other activists by providing healthy home-cooked meals during their stay in Pittsburgh,” said Glen Downey of Healey & Hornack, P.C., another of the groups’ attorneys.

The lawsuit filed on Friday seeks the declaration that Seeds of Peace and Three Rivers Climate Convergence’s constitutional rights were violated as well as other compensatory and punitive damages.

Seeds of Peace is a Montana-based, non-profit-cooperative that has attended demonstrations and supported various communities and groups working on the front lines of social change by providing them food, water, and planning assistance. Their vegetable oil and solar powered bus intended to model sustainable practices and support Three Rivers Climate Convergence and other activists in the form of food, water and planning during the International Coal Conference and G-20 Summit.

Three Rivers Climate Convergence is a partnership of Pittsburgh-area groups and individuals, working other regional and national organizations to create meaningful action on climate change, advocate for environmental justice and demonstrate truly sustainable living. The group planned an international convergence of activists and educators to create an educational and participatory climate camp and to mobilize around the Pittsburgh G-20 Summit and the International Coal Conference.

The case is Seeds of Peace Collective, et al. v. City of Pittsburgh, et al. Seeds of Peace and Three Rivers Climate Convergence are represented by Walczak and Sara Rose of the ACLU of Pennsylvania; Lobel; Downey and Michael Healey of Healey & Hornack, P.C.; and Jon Pushinsky. A copy of the amended complaint can be found at:

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Friday, December 11, 2009

The PA legislature, where shooting "the illegals" passes as humor

It's hard to believe that in this economic climate that any policy maker would have the audacity to pass a bill to actually hurt workers. But there are some Pennsylvania representatives who are trying to do just that.

On Tuesday, the PA House Labor Relations Committee unanimously passed House Bill 1502 and House Bill 1503. HB 1502 would require state contractors to use the federal E-Verify program, and HB 1503 would require all PA construction companies to use it. E-Verify is a database program that, in theory, is supposed to verify that a worker is eligible to work by verifying the worker's Social Security number.

But here's the rub: E-Verify is loaded with errors. Millions of errors. And the errors disproportionately affect foreign-born workers who are naturalized citizens and legal residents who are eligible to work. It's not just advocates saying this. The federal government itself, which runs the program, has admitted that E-Verify has millions of errors. The National Immigration Law Center has a great fact sheet (pdf) that lays out the problems.

Opponents of HBs 1502 and 1503 are some real heavyweights- the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, Service Employees International Union of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Bar Association, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, and, of course, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. Despite the persuasive arguments against the bills from these groups, not one rep- Republican or Democrat- raised a voice of protest at the committee meeting.

How fitting that just the week before the Fiscal Policy Institute released the results of a study that showed that immigrants contribute to GDP at a rate roughly proportional to their percentage of population. The study found that immigrants make up about 3 percent of the population of metro Pittsburgh and 4 percent of GDP. Foreign-born residents are responsible for 9 percent of the population of metro Philadelphia and 10 percent of GDP.

The lowlight came toward the end of the meeting when committee chair Rep. Robert Belfanti joked about well-known anti-immigrant Rep. Daryl Metcalfe introducing an amendment to "shoot the illegals." This drew laughter from quite a few folks in the room. I just rolled my eyes toward the ceiling and thought, 'Am I really in the middle of this nightmare?' Poor Emma Cleveland, our new immigration community organizer. I invited her to Harrisburg for the committee vote, her first trip to the state capitol. I think she's been traumatized. She called the scene "surreal."

We haven't stopped fighting. We are still hopeful that we can stop this blatantly anti-worker legislation before it becomes law. A lot of working people are counting on us.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Old "War on Christmas" Song and Dance

"War on Christmas commences," declared the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights last month.

This is not the first skirmish in this supposed war. According to the Catholic League, Fox News, and other right wing organizations, this struggle has been raging for years. If you believe Bill O'Reilly, this war is being waged by the "loony left, the Kool-Aid secular progressive ACLU America-haters."

Huh. I must have missed that memo.

What I did receive from my employers was a reiteration of the ACLU's commitment to defending personal religious freedom and protecting that personal choice by opposing government involvement in endorsing one viewpoint over another:

"The ACLU supports the rights of Christians and all religious people to celebrate their holidays in public spaces. We oppose government action that promotes or endorses particular religions or religion over non-religion. Our views are dictated by the Constitution of the United States and are motivated by our commitment to religious liberty for all Americans."

The ACLU may be best known for its work in defending the separation of church and state (which indeed, for the most literal-minded among us, is not in the Constitution - at least in those exact words; rather, it is a description by Thomas Jefferson of the First Amendment's anti-establishment clause, which reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."). The fact of the matter is, however, that we are equally vigorous in our support of personal religious freedom. Among the recent cases in which we advocated for the Consitutional right to religious expression are:

  • a lawsuit on behalf of a New Jersey prisoner, an ordained Pentecostal minister, who had been banned from preaching and teaching Bible study classes to other prisoners
  • a letter sent to a Virginia jail objecting to the jail's removal of Christian-themed materials and biblical passages from letters written to detainees
  • a lawsuit on behalf of the First Apostles' Doctrine Church in Brookville, Pennsylvania, which had been prevented from providing shelter to the homeless as an expression of their Christian beliefs

Many ACLU staffers and members also celebrate Christmas, as a group of carolers from the Public Advocate for the United States found when they appeared outside the ACLU offices in Washington, D.C., a few years ago holding signs that said "Merry Christmas" and "Please Don't Sue Us" and were instead joined by staffers delighted by the festive music.

In Bill O'Reilly's world, the two major perpetrators of the "War on Christmas" are the loonies at the ACLU and the department stores. Reports of the ACLU's involvement, as they say, have been greatly exaggerated. According to Michelle Goldberg

[T]here is no war on Christmas. What there is, rather, is a burgeoning myth of a war on Christmas, assembled out of old reactionary tropes, urban legends, exaggerated anecdotes and increasingly organized hostility to the American Civil Liberties Union. It's a myth that can be self-fulfilling, as school board members and local politicians believe the false conservative claim that they can't celebrate Christmas without getting sued by the ACLU and thus jettison beloved traditions, enraging citizens and perpetuating a potent culture-war meme. This in turn furthers the myth of an anti-Christmas conspiracy.

"You have a dynamic here, where you have the Christian right hysterically overrepresenting the problem, and then anecdotally you have some towns where lawyers restrict any kind of display or representation of religion, which is equally absurd," says Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates and one of the foremost experts on the religious right. "It's a closed loop. In that dynamic, neither the secular humanists or the ACLU are playing a role."

To read the whole story, visit

Likewise, the department stores may not be plotting quite as cleverly as they are accused of. In calling for a boycott of the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic, the American Family Association claims, "For years, Gap has refused to use the word Christmas in its television commercials, newspaper ads and in-store promotions...The Gap is censoring the word Christmas, pure and simple."

The Gap's current commercials, however, feature a group of young people chanting, "Two! Four! Six! Eight! Tis the time to liberate! Go Christmas! Go Chanukah! Go Kwanzaa! Go solstice!" Maybe it's just me, but I believe Christmas is mentioned - and mentioned first, at that.

And, as Charles Henderson observes, Christmas does not seem to be in any danger of going extinct.

I'm writing this from New York City which by every estimation should be the central front of the war on Christmas. There are probably more members of the "loony left" right here in New York than anywhere. This is the world's capital of secular. The ACLU has its headquarters here.

But I can tell you that Christmas is alive and well in this city. And I find no evidence whatsoever of a war being fought against it. In fact, it is omnipresent. I spent the better part of yesterday morning in the waiting room of a doctor's office in a public hospital in the very heart of this city. There was Christmas music playing incessantly and loudly from the sound system for all to hear. The volume was so high I was tempted to request that the amplifier be turned down a bit to give the patients some peace and quiet. There was a huge Christmas tree in the lobby. Another giant, monster Christmas tree, as usual, in Rockefeller Center, not far away. A new fangled, more spectacular Christmas star hanging in mid air over the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, the heart of the shopping district. Salvation Army Santas were collecting money for the needy on many street corners. Christmas trees were selling briskly all along Broadway. Entire forests of trees. Here in the capital of Secular America Christmas is inescapable. It is vibrant. It is victorious. The churches are packed. The concerts of sacred music abound. The energy of Christmas is everywhere.

So for those of us who live in the real world - as opposed to the world inside the minds of Fox News commentators - there is no War on Christmas. I have checked our staff attorney's office, and she is not in there plotting to kidnap Santa Claus. The ACLU has every respect for Christmas. We just respect other religious and cultural traditions as well.

Becca in Harrisburg

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Monday, December 07, 2009

Keep Pennsylvania Kids in School

Last week, the Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) released its National Resolution for Ending School Pushouts. What is "school pushout," and why is it a national problem? Many students are pushed out of schools by harsh disciplinary practices that favor exclusionary strategies like the over-use of suspension and expulsion, and create unwelcoming environments for students. When young people — often those who need the most support — are pushed out of school, they essentially lose their right to an education.

The resolution is a call to action for our school systems. It is an attempt to reframe the debate about school climate and discipline from one that favors the punishment and exclusion of children to one based on human rights.

I don't normally get too excited by bold statements about social problems. This one feels different, though. The National Resolution for Ending School Pushout is not an empty statement, but a call for a real change in our schools. The resolution goes beyond decrying the trend toward pushout to propose positive steps that can be taken to help make it possible for young people to remain on track to complete their education.

For those of us deeply engaged in work in Pennsylvania's schools, the resolution could not be released at a more critical moment. In October of 2008, the school district of Philadelphia adopted a "zero tolerance" policy under which expulsions have escalated dramatically.

Across the state, approximately 30,000 students are placed in more than 600 "alternative education for disruptive youth" programs each year. Relatively little is known about these individual programs and the experiences of the students in them.

In Philadelphia, many students are transferred to alternative schools without an opportunity to contest the charges against them. Many wait for up to six months for a decision to be made about their future. Some are ultimately exonerated, but by that time, they have been out of their regular schools for so long that catching up is difficult if not impossible. In the 2008-09 school year, 193 expulsion hearings were held, up from zero in the previous year; 166 students were ultimately expelled by the School Reform Commission (our school board). The current school year began with 90 students in limbo awaiting hearings from last school year.

The resolution calls for a different approach to creating peaceful and respectful environment in schools. It urges schools to adopt proven alternative disciplinary approaches such as positive behavior supports and restorative practices. Furthermore, it urges that the rights of students, parents and guardians be treated with respect in all school processes.

Finally, the resolution calls on public officials and school administrators to provide teachers and school staff with the support needed to bring about these changes.

One thing is certain: keeping young people engaged with school is the best thing we as a society can do.

Harold in Philadelphia

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Thursday, December 03, 2009

A Very ACLU Christmas

A wonderful tribute to the ACLU of Pennsylvania's late legal director, Stefan Presser, from someone who used to work in our office in the mid-1990s.

A Very ACLU Christmas

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

In Focus: The School to Prison Pipeline

The second installment in the Greater Pittsburgh Chapter’s Juvenile Justice Series Discussion focused on the School to Prison Pipeline (STPP).

The School to Prison Pipeline refers to the policies and practices that push our nation’s schoolchildren, especially our most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice system. The most important aspect is the prioritization of incarceration over education.

On October 8th, Jasiri X led the discussion at the Amani International Coffee House on the North Side. Jasiri X, an activist and entrepreneur, focuses his attention and celebrity on local, national, and international issues. Weekly, he reports news lyrically over hip hop beats streaming online. Jasiri X is also a founding member of One HOOD, a group comprised of strong black men determined to heal the wounds of the Pittsburgh community through a proactive approach.

The discussion evolved around the reasons why the STPP exists and how it effects the most at-risk youth.

Five main factors contributing to the STPP:

  • Failing Public Schools: Most students’ journeys along the pipeline begin in public schools with inadequate resources-mostly counseling services and special education services that lock students into poor educational environments with no outlets.
  • Zero-Tolerance and Other School Discipline: These polices automatically impose severe punishment regardless of circumstance. As harsh penalties for minor misbehavior become more pervasive, schools increasingly ignore or bypass due process protections for suspensions and expulsions.
  • Policing in School Hallways: Trends toward police acting as disciplinarians and away from teachers and administrators expose students to a rise in school-based arrests, which are the quickest route from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse. School-based arrests exemplify the most apparent exhibit of the criminalization of schoolchildren.
  • Disciplinary Alternative Schools: Many of these institutions are run by for-profit entrepreneurs, who are not accountable for educational standards. When students leave these facilities and reenter their schools, they are often unprepared for their coursework and permanently exposed to an educational disadvantage.
  • Court Involvement and Juvenile Detention: Many youth involved in the juvenile system are denied procedural protections in the courts. Further, their probation conditions are not fitting for the crimes committed. Violating such conditions forces these children into juvenile detention facilities, which provide little to no educational services.

It should be noted that students of color are far more likely to travel through the STPP than their white counterparts for the same conduct. Those with disabilities are also at higher risk because schools do not provide adequate diagnoses or services. Most students who become a part of the STPP never graduate high school.

For more information regarding future Greater Pittsburgh Chapter discussion series, visit

Kristine in Pittsburgh

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