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Tennessee Principal’s Reaction to GSA T-Shirt Raises the Question: Who’s Really Causing the Disruption Here?

1:56 pm in Uncategorized by ACLU

By Amanda Goad, Staff Attorney, ACLU LGBT Project

Chris Sigler is a senior at Sequoyah High School in Madisonville, Tennessee. It’s a tradition among Sequoyah students to get friends’ signatures on a keepsake T-shirt, so in past years Chris has done that on a shirt labeled "California" and one with the name of his favorite band. This year, Chris decided to make a shirt that would send a message about an issue that’s important to him: the proposed Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at Sequoyah.

Chris is not gay himself, but he has friends who are. Most of them have suffered bullying at Sequoyah, and some of them have considered suicide. Chris himself regularly gets called things like "fag," "queer," and "pussy" by other students just for his support of his gay friends. So it’s important to him that all students at the school have a safe place to go to talk about bullying and how to fight homophobia. The U.S. Department of Education agrees with Chris that GSAs, and other student-initiated clubs bringing together gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning, and straight youth, are a great way to combat bullying and help all students feel safe and welcome at school. And the federal Equal Access Act protects students’ right to form GSAs at public schools like Chris’s.

The Sequoyah High School GSA should have been a done deal by now…if it weren’t for the principal, Maurice Moser. When they circulated a petition to show support for the GSA and got over 150 signatures, students say Moser banned petitions about the GSA at the school. Then, when Chris and two other students put together an application for school recognition of the GSA, Moser wouldn’t even take it from them because they hadn’t named a faculty sponsor. At least three teachers have expressed interest in sponsoring the GSA but then changed their minds after meeting with Moser about it. We’ve read that Moser has admitted that in the past, when other clubs needed sponsors, he helped them out – but this time he refused to help.

Chris wrote "Gay Straight Alliance: We’ve Got Your Back" on a T-shirt and wore it to school last Tuesday and Friday. Dozens of classmates signed. But Friday morning, Moser told Chris that he could choose either to turn his shirt inside out, change shirts, or get suspended. Chris ignored that, because he knew his shirt was fine under the Sequoyah dress code. Later, Moser charged into Chris’s economics class, interrupted the students in the middle of taking a test, and ordered everyone except Chris to leave. What happened next is a matter for the criminal justice system. But putting aside the assault and battery allegations against Moser, it’s unconstitutional and totally inappropriate for a high school student to be punished for speaking his mind peacefully through the words on a T-shirt. The Supreme Court says that students can express whatever ideas they want through their clothing as long as they don’t cause a "substantial disruption," and it sounds like the only person causing a substantial disruption at Sequoyah last week was Moser.

The ACLU of Tennessee and the ACLU’s LGBT Project wrote a letter to the Monroe County Director of Schools, Moser’s boss, on Tuesday. We asked the school district to confirm that it will, going forward, honor students’ constitutional rights to free speech and free expression. If we have to, we are prepared to go to court to protect Sequoyah students’ First Amendment rights. Meanwhile, the ACLU of Tennessee is asking concerned members of the public to contact the school district seeking a promise that any teacher who steps up to sponsor the GSA won’t face retaliation. We look forward to hearing that a courageous teacher has done so, which under Moser’s own rules should allow recognition of the GSA, so that Chris and his classmates can get together over lunch to talk about LGBT issues with the school’s blessing.

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Wichita Blues: Kansas Mandates Photo ID For Its Voters

4:08 pm in Uncategorized by ACLU

photo ID, 1973 - 2004

"photo ID, 1973 - 2004 by joe holmes, on Flickr

Kansas took a giant leap backwards this week by enacting one of the harshest voter ID laws in the country. Gov. Sam Brownback signed a bill into law Monday that will require voters to present photo ID at the polls as well as proof of citizenship in order to register. Kansas has joined a small group of outliers in passing such a retrograde law. Thirty-two state legislatures have introduced similar photo ID bills this year in what appears to be a nationwide coordinated effort to erect new barriers to voting. Only two other states in the union—Indiana and Georgia—refuse to hand a regular ballot to a voter who lacks photo ID without exception or alternative.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, well-known as the principal author of Arizona’s extreme racial profiling law, S.B. 1070, was the driving force behind this legislation. Kobach’s voter ID law undermines our country’s strides in expanding the fundamental right to vote to be more inclusive of historically marginalized groups like racial minorities, low-income voters, the disabled, and senior citizens. Kobach claims that requiring ID is necessary in order to combat widespread voter registration by undocumented immigrants in Kansas.

Yet, no such evidence has ever been presented to support his claims of rampant fraud. In fact, records released in 2009 revealed only seven cases of alleged electoral fraud—only one of which was prosecuted—in the previous five years.

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Calling The Police Can Get You Evicted

12:43 pm in Uncategorized by ACLU

By Katie Miller, Litigation Fellow, & Sandra Park, Staff Attorney, ACLU Women’s Rights Project

Across the country, a growing number of cities are adopting nuisance ordinances that impose fines and criminal penalties on landlords and tenants when the police are called too many times to the property. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, landlords may be fined if the police are called to the premises three or more times within 30 days. While the stated goal is to deter crime and recoup costs, these ordinances endanger domestic violence survivors, particularly women of color.

Property nuisance ordinances can take a variety of forms, but generally impose fines or other sanctions on building owners and tenants when the police are called to the premises a certain number of times, or where certain offenses are alleged to have occurred on the property. Under these ordinances, the only practical way for an owner to abate the "nuisance" and avoid a penalty is to evict the resident who called the police or whose home was the site of the alleged offense.

These ordinances present two very serious problems for women who experience domestic violence or stalking, two crimes that often occur in one’s home: They may prevent victims from calling the police when they are endangered by an abuser or stalker, and they may result in housing discrimination against victims of domestic violence. The ACLU of Washington raised both of these concerns when a nuisance ordinance was adopted in Seattle.

If a tenant knows that multiple calls to the police will lead to eviction, she may feel forced to remain silent to avoid homelessness. This means that a victim of domestic violence may not be able to seek police assistance when she faces abuse or needs to enforce a restraining order.

Take Laurie Grape: After two calls to the police for protection from her abusive ex-boyfriend, Grape was warned that a third call would result in eviction pursuant to the nuisance ordinance in East Rochester, N.Y. Although her ex-boyfriend continued to threaten her, Grape did not contact the police because she feared that she and her children would lose their home.

In situations where an alleged "nuisance" offense is related to an incident of domestic violence, landlords may choose to evict all the residents to avoid future incidents or police calls that could result in a fine. Yet, these evictions violate federal law. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has made it clear that tenants who are denied or evicted from housing because they have suffered domestic violence can file sex discrimination complaints with HUD under the federal Fair Housing Act.

Because these ordinances may disproportionately affect domestic violence survivors, most of whom are women, we are concerned that they deny women their right to housing. If you have been evicted or threatened with eviction because you experienced domestic violence, or have been discouraged from calling the police to report domestic violence, we want to hear from you:


The Social Network: Facebook Behind the Scenes

11:59 am in Uncategorized by ACLU

By Tamar Gubins, Technology and Civil Liberties Policy Associate, ACLU of Northern California

The Social Network biopic that opens in theaters today chronicles Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the beginnings of Facebook. The social network behemoth and its young and oft-embroiled founder and CEO are ripe fodder for Hollywood. But looking beyond the manufactured drama and snappy dialogue, we are right to be concerned about this company that knows and collects so much information about our personal lives: pictures, list of friends, location, religious and political preferences, sexual orientation, interests, and more.

Facebook started as a "dorm room project" whose founder’s indifference to privacy is seen in instant messages from his Harvard years that surfaced earlier this year. In those messages he offers to reveal personal information he collected on thousands of his classmates, saying that people inexplicably trusted him with their personal information and derisively calling those trusting masses a word that cannot be printed.

While Facebook has matured to a company worth $30 billion with more than 500 million users, its privacy practices have continued to disappoint. In 2007, users unwittingly found themselves opted into the company’s intrusive “Beacon” web tracking program. Activities on other websites, like and Blockbuster, started showing up on users’ Facebook pages, leaking surprise holiday gifts, engagement plans, and other private information to friends and family. Bowing to user outrage, loss of business partners, and a class-action lawsuit, the company abandoned the program.

The Beacon blunder is just one chapter in the story. Facebook’s privacy-unfriendly practices have continued to make headlines many times in the past year. Its 2009 "privacy transition" eliminated some privacy controls, including the ability to minimize sharing sensitive data like friend lists and fan pages. These changes had serious real life implications for users. One college student’s sexual orientation was abruptly revealed to residents of his small southern town when Facebook’s privacy changes made public on his profile that he was a fan of his school’s LGBT organization. Others believe that they were not hired for positions because their support of particular organizations or political efforts on Facebook was made public.

Faced with mounting user concern and pressure from lawmakers, Facebook reversed some of the changes like allowing users to hide their list of friends from public view. Later, Zuckerberg admitted that Facebook had “missed the mark” and backpedalled again, limiting information sent to advertisers.

Despite these patches Facebook continues to miss the mark. Through the new “like” button Facebook is able to track users’ Internet browsing habits (even if the user never clicks the button). Facebook’s “Instant Personalization” instantly shares information with partner websites when a user visits that site. And just last month, Facebook aggressively pushed the adoption of its new location service, Places, by making it easy to allow friends to check you in, but more complicated to fully opt out.

Facebook users should educate themselves about online privacy issues, and the ACLU and others are producing resources to help them to do this. But protecting personal information can be a herculean task when privacy policies are longer than the U.S. Constitution and users must click through dozens of privacy buttons to opt out of disclosure.

We are putting more information than ever online and into the hands of companies like Facebook. These “free” services may end up costing a very hefty price: control of our personal information.

I am looking forward to seeing The Social Network. But the real drama playing out today is not Facebook’s or its founder’s past, but what will happen in the future to those of us who are entrusting Facebook with our personal information. The ending to that story will be determined by each of us and whether we do our parts to demand better control of our online information.


An Ugly, But Legal, Form of Free Speech

1:30 pm in Uncategorized by ACLU

By Howard Simon, Executive Director, ACLU of Florida; Benetta Standly, Regional Director, ACLU of Florida; and Sonya Rudenstine, Board Member, ACLU of Florida, Gainesville.

The Dove World Outreach Center plans to commemorate the September 11 terrorist attacks by burning copies of the Quran in a presumably sincere, but woefully misguided, belief that America is at war with the Islamic faith.

Burning books conjures up images of a time when Nazi brutality against a religious minority was state-sanctioned policy. The community will surely respond as suggested by University of Florida President Bernard Machen; by condemning post-9/11 intolerance of Muslims and people of Arab and south Asian descent and reaffirming a commitment to religious and ethnic diversity. Such a reaffirmation is urgently needed at this sad period in American history, when Islamophobia (really, anti-Muslim bigotry) may be becoming mainstream political rhetoric.

The ACLU of Florida encourages its members to stand with others in the community to protect the Muslim community’s religious freedom to practice its faith.

It is important that the voices of decency not let the book-burners and taunts of the bigots dominate the conversation — and ensure that the German writer Heinrich Heine’s prophesy ("Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.") is not repeated.

But with the guarantee of religious freedom for all, the fundamental American right to protest — an essential element of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression — should also be honored.

As the Constitution protects the right to burn an American flag as a political protest, for the Ku Klux Klan to rally at a state capitol, for neo-Nazis to march down an American street, then surely there is a right to burn a Quran or any other sacred symbol.

As the Supreme Court said more than 60 years ago, a principal "function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger."

That constitutional principle protected freedom of speech for the racist and virulently anti-Semitic Father Terminello, who gave a racially charged rant to a restless crowd in Chicago in the 1940s. But it also protected the right of black college students to peacefully protest racially segregated restaurants in Louisiana — and Rosa B. Williams’ protests of racially segregated facilities and department stores in Gainesville, almost two decades later.

The Dove World’s religiously intolerant book-burning stunt should remind us that constitutional principles protecting their right to protest also protect everyone’s right to protest — including the Gainesville community’s right to protest Dove World’s intolerance.

But defending the right of everyone to advance their point of view by whatever nonviolent methods they choose does not mean we should refrain from condemning the objectives of the protest. Bigotry should be condemned for what it is.

Those of us who will use freedom of speech to condemn the burning of Qurans and the distressing intolerance that will be on display on September 11 also need to protect the constitutional right to engage in hateful and bigoted speech. The legal principles that protect the Dove World’s freedom of speech, as ugly and intolerant as it will be, also protect freedom of speech for everyone else. Weaken it for them, and we weaken it for everyone.

September 11 should be a reaffirmation of the principles that make America the beacon of liberty it still is — religious liberty and freedom of speech. We should demonstrate to the nation and the world how these uniquely American values work together.

(Originally posted in the Gainesville Sun.)


A Back-to-School Wish for LGBT Students

12:58 pm in Uncategorized by ACLU

By Ian Thompson, ACLU Washington Legislative Office

As young people across the country begin to prepare to head back to school with trips to the store for new supplies and clothes, it is a good time to pause and reflect on the discrimination and harassment that continues to be endured by those students who are, or are thought to be, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). For far too many, the dawning of a new school year brings with it the return of discrimination, harassment and physical abuse from fellow students and even school officials. Others are left to wonder what will happen when someone finds out who they are.

Every student deserves the opportunity to attend school and learn free of fear; however, this is not the reality for many LGBT young people in schools across the country. The ACLU’s own work advocating for equal protection for LGBT students is replete with examples of those who have suffered discriminatory treatment at the very hands of those tasked with providing them with an education and ensuring their safety within schools.

However, LGBT students have many advocates who are working to make our schools open and welcoming environments for all students – including their fellow students who have successfully formed thousands of gay-straight alliances at schools across the country. In the case of Jamie Nabozny, they have a courageous champion who is able to speak to these issues in a way that few others can.

Jamie experienced the kind of antigay verbal and physical abuse in his school in rural Ashland, Wisconsin, in the late 1980s and early 1990s that can only be described as the stuff of nightmares. Over the course of several years, beginning in middle school and continuing through his junior year of high school, Jamie was called "faggot," "queer," and "fudge packer" on a near-daily basis, and being tripped, pushed, punched and kicked became a reality of life at school. The abuse only grew worse over time as students urinated on him, pretended to rape him and eventually kicked him so hard and so many times in the stomach that he suffered serious internal injuries and required surgery. The most shocking aspect to these horrors in school was that school officials treated the abuse with utter indifference, or even worse, statements that this what he should expect for being gay.

Eventually, Jamie left the school once and for all and moved to Minneapolis. Even after he was able to escape this daily torment, Jamie understood that there were other young people just like him who were experiencing discrimination and harassment in their schools because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. He wanted to do something to ensure that other LGBT students in the future would not have to go through what he did, so, with legal representation from Lambda Legal, Jamie sued the Ashland School District and those school officials who, year after year, did nothing to prevent this terrible abuse.

The case, Nabozny v. Podlesny, led to a landmark decision in 1996 that said schools are required by the Constitution to protect students from the types of antigay abuse Jamie endured. The decision in this case has been used in years since to help other LGBT students experiencing harassment and abuse at their schools.

Today, Jamie is taking this struggle for protections for LGBT students to the US Congress. In a letter to Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) sent on Tuesday, August 17, Jamie writes to thank them for their sponsorship of legislation known as the Student Non-Discrimination Act, and urges its swift passage. This legislation would protect students from discrimination and harassment in public schools based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, and would provide victims with effective legal remedies.

Similar federal protections already exist for public school students on the basis of their race, color, sex, religion, disability or national origin. Despite the fact that LGBT students are particularly vulnerable at school, as Jamie’s case clearly demonstrated, they remain glaringly absent from such federal civil rights statutes. There is simply no excuse for this in the year 2010.

For anyone who questions whether such legislation is still needed, I need only remind you of the case of Mississippi teen Constance McMillen and her thwarted efforts to attend her high school prom with her girlfriend this year.

Some may also point out that both Jamie and Constance successfully challenged their discriminatory treatment in the courts. Why does Congress need to act in this area? Jamie provides a compelling reason in his letter to Rep. Polis and Sen. Franken:

I was ultimately successful in my lawsuit, but court cases are very costly and time-consuming. A law like the Student Non-Discrimination Act could actually help to prevent the need for LGBT students and their families to go through the ordeal of a long, expensive court battle by making it clear that discrimination and harassment of students based on their sexual orientation or gender identity have no place in our nation’s schools.

Indeed, knowing that the Constitution and the government are on your side is a very powerful thing.

As schools start opening their doors for a new year full of promise, Congress should heed Jamie’s call to finally fill this glaring hole in our civil rights laws by passing the Student Non-Discrimination Act and sending it to President Obama for his signature. Passage of this legislation should rank right up there with repeal of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), as well as passage of the long-delayed Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) as priorities for the LGBT community. After all, we are dealing with some of the most vulnerable members of our community and the future leaders of our movement. Plus, many of us remember what it was like packing our book bags and heading to the bus on that first day of school in August.


Summer for Marriage

7:50 am in Uncategorized by ACLU

By Paul Cates, ACLU

Earlier in the season, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) declared this the "Summer for Marriage," and launched a cross-country bus tour to persuade the public that allowing same-sex couples to marry would be really bad. According to most reports, not all that many people were eager to jump on board, and some say it was really just a sham.

But NOM did get one thing right: this has indeed been the summer for marriage.

The summer got started a little early with Portugal, on June 5, becoming the sixth European country allowing same-sex couples to marry. A law was passed by the Assembly and declared constitutional by the country’s highest court.

On July 8, a federal court in Boston ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional because it requires the federal government to discriminate between same-sex couples and different-sex couples, all of whom are validly married in Massachusetts.

On July 22, Argentina, also through the legislative process, became the first South American country to allow same-sex couples to marry.

On August 4, a federal judge declared California’s anti-gay marriage amendment, Prop. 8, unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution. On August 12, the same court granted a temporary stay, barring same-sex couples from marrying, for now. But in its order, the court noted that it believed that it would be unlikely that the proponents of the amendment would have standing to bring an appeal. The proponents are now seeking an appeal to the federal appeals court.

On August 5, the Mexican Supreme Court upheld the decision of Mexico City to grant same-sex couples the ability to marry. On August 11, the Court ruled that all Mexican states must recognize the marriages of those couples married in Mexico City.

On August 10, the Costa Rica Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to put a referendum on the ballot to bar civil unions for same-sex couples. The court said that the rights of a minority should not be put up for a vote by the majority.

It’s also worth noting that public support for marriage for same-sex couples continues to grow. An August 11 CNN poll (PDF) found that 52 percent of the public believes that lesbians and gay men should have a constitutional right to marry.

The next few months are likely to bring many twists and turns, especially in the California challenge, but it’s pretty clear that it’s just a matter of time before marriage for same-sex couples is legal in all 50 states and much of the rest of the word.

In the meanwhile, I suspect we’re in for more scary ads from NOM predicting the apocalypse. But at this point, it’s got to feel pretty lousy on that bus.


Our Secret Security Establishment: the Big Picture

3:27 pm in Uncategorized by ACLU

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Program

At the ACLU we’ve warned regularly about the dangers of our gigantic national security establishment — whether in calling for increased oversight, fixes for runaway government secrecy, in our report on the emerging public-private “Surveillance-Industrial Complex,” and in many other places.

Now the Washington Post has issued a major new investigative report on what it calls “Top Secret America” — a geographically sprawling network of secret government agencies with a budget of $75 billion. Based on the Post’s reporting, it is no exaggeration to say that our secret intelligence establishment has spun out of control.

The report — the first in a series of three to be published this week — contains amazing new hard reporting that confirms what has long been known to those who pay attention.

The national security establishment is out of control.

The fact is, bureaucracies almost always seek to expand their own power and budgets. Add secrecy powers that protect them from independent public oversight, ineffective oversight by Congress and even from within the executive branch, and mix in ever-expanding budgets, and you’ve got a recipe for an out-of-control security establishment:

  • The Post reports that 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence at 10,000 locations across the United States.
  • Two-thirds of the intelligence programs reside in the Department of Defense — a worrisome militarization of our intelligence capabilities, especially at a time when those capabilities are increasingly being turned inward upon the American people.
  • The $75 billion intelligence budget is 2 ½ times its size before 9/11. The budget of the NSA doubled between 2002 and today.
  • There is no person or agency with the “authority, responsibility or a process in place to coordinate all these activities,” in the words of one official. “There’s only one entity in the entire universe that has visibility on all” secret programs, the Obama administration’s nominee to be the next director of national intelligence told the Post. “That’s God.” However, since men are not angels, as James Madison wrote, checks and balances on government power are crucial, and that state of affairs is frightening and unacceptable.
  • Since there is no one overseeing all this, there is also no way of knowing how effective it all is. One top general complained to the Post, for example, that the National Counterterrorism Center “never produced one shred of information that helped me prosecute three wars!”

The government is drowning in information.

As I’ve written before, computers are the dominant metaphor of our age and everyone thinks we can stop evil in the world if we can just collect enough data. But the Post paints a stark portrait of hundreds of government agencies drowning in data, as government systems vacuum up vast quantities of information about daily activities across the planet in the unlikely hope of discovering useful information. Unsurprisingly, the government cannot possibly make sense of all that data:

  • The National Security Agency is intercepting 1.7 billion emails, phone calls and other communications per day.
  • Analysts publish 50,000 intelligence reports each year.
  • “The overload of hourly, daily, weekly, monthly and annual reports is actually counterproductive, say people who receive them,” the Post reports.

Out-of-control secrecy is counterproductive.

The United States created a system for allowing government workers to hide information from the public that is supposed to be their ultimate boss, and from the beginning, that power has been misused by bureaucracies to increase their power and hide waste and abuse. The Post reports examples showing how:

  • Secrecy means that different organizations throughout the government often work on the same issues, creating enormous redundancy.
  • Secrecy undermines the chain of command, as bureaucrats abuse it to keep rivals out of the loop, and subordinates find they are required to keep secrets from their bosses or commanders.
  • Secrecy is abused to protect ineffective projects and evade oversight. The CIA reclassified information at a higher level of classification than it had previously thought necessary, the Post reports, in order to prevent officials at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) from seeing it.

The Washington Post and the authors of this piece have not only done some very good investigative reporting, but they also do what the media too seldom does: use that reporting to take a step back from the day-to-day details of life inside government and show the big picture.

A civil liberties issue

It’s important to recognize that is not just a question of whether the redundant, ineffective, in-fighting bureaucracies described by the Post represent a good use of our nation’s treasure. The growth of the secret security state is a civil liberties issue.

The presence of what the Post (in an online video accompanying its article) calls a “Fourth Branch of Government” outside those created by our Founders should give all Americans pause. The fact that this “branch” is one that operates under a veil of secrecy and with little oversight makes it all the worse. And above all, we should not forget that a lot of these agencies’ activities are harming innocent people. Travel and financial watchlists are created. Names are added (often for obscure reasons) but not subtracted. Americans are spied upon for political reasons. Personal communications are eavesdropped upon on a stunning scale. And the bureaucratic curtain of secrecy often gives individuals no way to defend their rights.

Action needed

The ACLU is doing everything we can to raise awareness of these problems. Most recently, we announced the launch of a new “Spyfiles” web page focused on political spying.

But unless Congress takes action, this problem is only going to get worse. Congress needs to sharply increase its oversight of “Top Secret America” — in particular by:

  • Taking a close look at the individual programs it’s funding
  • Whether those programs are delivering value commensurate with their budgets
  • Whether management of the national security establishment as a whole needs to be reevaluated
  • Whether that establishment as a whole makes sense in its current size and shape

Of course, Congress isn’t entirely to blame — in 2007 it did create an independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board with some significant powers for overseeing anti-terrorism efforts. But, the Obama administration has failed to appoint anybody to that board. Like Congress, the administration too must recognize the importance of solving these problems, lest its legacy for future generations of Americans be a secret security establishment that continues to waste money and violate individual rights.


New National AIDS Strategy Will Address Discrimination Against Those Living with HIV/AIDS

2:02 pm in Uncategorized by ACLU

By Ian Thompson, Senior Legislative Assistant, ACLU Washington Legislative Office

The Obama administration will unveil a first of its kind national AIDS strategy on Tuesday, which took 15 months of work to complete. In a preview in Monday’s New York Times(which has obtained an advance copy of the national strategy), the administration plans to focus most intensively on reducing the number of new annual HIV infections, which currently stands at roughly 56,000, as well as increasing the number of people receiving care and treatment.

Recognizing those who have been disproportionately impacted in this country by the disease, the strategy calls for more attention and resources to be directed towards gay and bisexual men, who account for over half of the new infections each year, as well as to African-Americans, who account for 46 percent of those living with HIV.

Particularly noteworthy from a civil liberties and civil rights prospective is the strategy’s recognition of the persistent discrimination those living with HIV face, and the harm it does to efforts to fight the disease and limit its spread. The strategy states:

The stigma associated with H.I.V. remains extremely high…People living with H.I.V. may still face discrimination in many areas of life, including employment, housing, provision of health care services and access to public accommodations.

The administration goes on to state that they plan to strengthen enforcement of civil rights laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), to protect those with HIV/AIDS. Of particular note, former ACLU legislative counsel and current EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum was a principal drafter of the ADA while working for the ACLU.

The issue of discrimination against those with HIV is something the ACLU has been very active in over the years. For example, the ACLU currently has a complaint pending before the Equal Employment Opportunity Counselor for the Eastern Region of the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), charging that TSA violated its own policies barring discrimination against those with disabilities when it refused a job as baggage screener to an applicant simply because of his HIV status.

Knowing what your rights are in this area is critically important. Click here for a copy of HIV and Civil Rights – Know Your Rights in the Workplace.

Michael Lamarre was told that the reason for his ultimate rejection, despite successfully completing a rigorous application process, was because his HIV status made him more susceptible to viruses and infections and that it was for his own benefit, despite the fact that medical experts and his own doctor said he is no more likely to catch a cold or virus than anyone else. Misinformation and outdated stereotypes about those who have HIV remain a far too common daily reality for those who live with the disease, including in our nation’s jails and prisons.

In August of 2009, after more than two decades of intense advocacy by the ACLU, the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) officials ended a longstanding ban of prisoners with HIV from participating in the state’s work release program. The ACLU, as well as other advocates, long argued that the ban was an arbitrary and discriminatory denial to participation in a program essential for aiding prisoners’ successful reintegration into society. During a federal trial in the mid-1990s, an Alabama warden testified that the segregation of HIV-positive prisoners was an essential security measure since people with HIV were as dangerous as rattlesnakes. Despite the recent positive developments around allowing HIV-positive prisoners to participate in Alabama’s work release program, both Alabama and South Carolina continue the degrading and inhumane practice of segregating HIV-positive prisoners. Prisoners in the HIV units are forced to wear armbands or other indicators of their HIV status, and are denied equal participation in prison jobs, programs and re-entry opportunities that facilitate their successful transition back into society.

In addition to discrimination, criminalization of HIV is also a reality in much of the country. According to the New York Times, at least 32 states have criminal statutes specific to HIV, many of which date to the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s when fear and paranoia of the disease was at its most destructive peak. The Times reports:

In Pennsylvania and Louisiana, people with H.I.V. can be sentenced to as much as 10 years in prison for spitting at or biting another person, even though scientists have long concluded that transmitting the virus through saliva is virtually impossible. In Missouri, people can be sentenced to life in prison if they infect others without their knowledge.

Additionally, the ACLU of Michigan filed an amicus brief in the case of an HIV-positive man who faced bio-terrorism charges after he bit another man during an altercation. Thankfully, a judge recently threw out the bio-terrorism charges against the man (he still faces other charges stemming from the incident), however, the case illustrates the absurd ways in which HIV is still being treated under criminal laws in many states.

There is obviously much work that needs to be done to confront the discrimination and criminalization that those living with HIV/AIDS continue to face. The administration’s commitment to strengthen enforcement of civil rights laws to protect those who have the disease is a promising step, as is the release of the first-ever national HIV/AIDS strategy.


No Aloha in Hawaii for LGBT Families: Hawaii Governor’s Veto of Civil Unions Bill an Affront to All

9:31 am in Uncategorized by ACLU

By Laurie Temple, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Hawaii

In Hawaii, one is said to have aloha or to show aloha if they treat others with love, mercy, compassion and peace. Sadly, the aloha spirit was lost on Tuesday, July 6, 2010, when, in a blow to LGBT families and civil rights supporters, Hawaii’s governor Linda Lingle vetoed House Bill 444 ("H.B. 444"), the civil unions bill. While offering substantially less than marriage, H.B. 444 would have allowed both same and different sex couples to enter into a civil union and receive the rights, responsibilities, benefits and protections that Hawaii law provides to married couples. Gov. Lingle’s veto of HB 444 continues to leave Hawaii’s LGBT families vulnerable — without the basic rights and responsibilities necessary to protect and strengthen their families.

Gov. Lingle’s reasoning for vetoing the bill is indefensible. Calling civil unions "marriage by another name" (as if anyone would trade their marriage for a civil union), she described the issue as too emotional and important to be decided solely by the governor or the state legislature, and one that should be put to a vote. Yet, Hawaii’s people already voted on this issue back in 1998. At that time it looked like Hawaii’s courts might decide that it was unconstitutional for the state to deny same-sex couples the ability to marry, so the voters approved an amendment that stripped the courts of the ability to decide the issue of marriage, giving the power instead to the legislature (not the governor) to decide what protections and recognition to provide same-sex couples.

Make no mistake: the ACLU opposed the amendment because we believe that if the Constitution’s guarantee of equality is to have meaning, then the rights of minorities should never be held at the mercy of the majority. But it is especially shameful that Gov. Lingle, who has taken an oath to protect and defend everyone’s constitutional rights, is now calling for a second vote on an issue that has already been decided by the people of Hawaii. There is only one person to blame for the harm that will come to families of same-sex couples who being denied critical legal protections, and that is Gov. Lingle, who has defied both the legislature and the wishes of the people.

But never fear…the ACLU is here! While the governor may wish to sidestep this civil rights issue, the ACLU of Hawaii and its many community allies remain undaunted in the fight to achieve equality. For over a year, the ACLU of Hawaii, Lambda Legal and the law firm of Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing have been working to ready a lawsuit to challenge Hawaii’s failure to ensure equal treatment for LGBT families in the event that the legislative process failed to do so. Unfortunately, that day has come. Hawaii’s families are ready to take the next step towards equality — up the courthouse stairs. Imua!