Individual liberties

  • May 20, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    For decades Religious Right activists have cultivated a wobbly narrative, championed by pundits like Bill O’Reilly, of a secular America striving to erase Christianity from the public square.

    These activists, such as the Family Research Council and the American Family Association and televangelists like Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, often blamed the Supreme Court for leading the way.

    First, they have argued the Supreme Court yanked prayer and Bible readings from the public schools in the cases Engel v. Vitale and Abington v. Schempp. But neither of those cases did such things. Instead the Supreme Court in those cases prohibited organized religion in the public schools. In other words public school teachers and administrators had to stop leading students in religious activities. Those cases did not outlaw prayer or religion in the public schools; they just found that such activities must be truly student initiated.

    There’s also the annual farce dubbed the “war on Christmas,” where, supposedly, secularists roam city halls and public squares demanding the removal of all vestiges of religion. There are also Supreme Court cases involving these clashes between government officials and individuals bent on festooning public spaces with religious and non-religious symbols. The cases can seem a bit absurd, but a takeaway -- if public officials open their public buildings and spaces to say a nativity display they’d better be prepared to open them to displays of other holidays celebrated during the winter and some secular symbols too, like giant candy-canes or snowmen. For too many Religious Right activists, however, it’s not enough to decorate churches and private homes with religious symbols of the holiday season, they must also adorn government buildings with them and if government officials don’t comply they’ll point to a “war on Christmas.”

    Then there are government meetings and activities. From coast to coast there are city and town councils and other government bodies that like to open their public meetings with prayer. The use of prayer in government work has a long history. On the federal level, both chambers of Congress open each day with chaplains providing invocations and a marshal opens Supreme Court sessions, with “Oyez, oyez, God save the United States and this Honorable Court.”

    As the nation has evolved, however, and become more diverse, unsurprisingly you’ve had more and more people question the use of prayer during government sessions. And here again, you have a ripe opportunity for Religious Right zealots to complain about attempts to force government officials to either forgo prayer altogether at their official functions or mix it up and include invocations from all kinds of religious groups.

    The Supreme Court has touched upon prayer during government sessions, and today the Roberts Court agreed to consider a case – Town of Greece v. Galloway – that allows the high court to revisit precedent on government and prayer. The case arises from Greece, N.Y. where Christian prayer has frequently been used to open town board meetings. As The New York Times’ Adam Liptak reports the town’s prayer policy has been in place since 1999 and town officials have said that people of all faiths, including atheists, can offer invocations.

  • May 16, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Like his predecessor President Obama has embraced an aggressive, mostly secret and, at times, constitutionally suspect approach to waging a never-ending war on terror.

    Unlike its predecessor, the Obama administration has obsessively investigated leaks of information surrounding some of its counterterrorism efforts. The administration has launched at least six cases of alleged leaks, including one involving a foiled terrorist plot in Yemen that The Associated Press reported on last spring. As part of that investigation the Department of Justice secretly gathered and culled through phone records of AP reporters.

    Going on the information we have now it appears that the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech including press from government interference, was too easily shunted aside in an over-the-top investigation of a leak. The AP was given no chance to challenge a government search of its phone records and have a judge decide whether national security interests trumped freedom of speech in this instance. Yes, Attorney General Eric Holder claims the leak was one of the most egregious he has seen in a long, long time. But he doesn’t explain how it was so terribly egregious, nor do the facts as we know them now support his sweeping assertion.

    And today, during a press conference, President Obama hardly appeared fazed by the criticism of the DOJ’s tactics, decrying leaks of counterterrorism efforts. “Leaks related to national security can put people at risk, they can put men and women in uniform that I’ve sent into the battlefield at risk,” he said.

    But the May 7, 2012 reporting by the AP, had, according to its president, Gary Pruitt, been held until the White House assured the AP that “national security concerns" were no longer an issue. Pruitt added, “Indeed the White House was preparing to publicly announce that the bomb plot had been foiled.”  

    Earlier this week The New York Times Editorial Board hammered the administration for its “zeal” for going after persons accused of leaking national security information. In the AP matter, The Times Editorial Board said the administration had offered no “credible justification for secretly combing through the phone records of reporters and editors at The Associated Press in what looks like a fishing expedition for sources and an effort to frighten off whistle-blowers.”

    It’s rather lame to argue that just because Republicans howled loudly over the AP coverage of the foiled terrorist plot in Yemen that the DOJ’s obnoxious action of spying on the AP was somewhat mitigated. Moreover, it’s not like this administration has needed prodding to aggressively and obsessively go after alleged leakers.

  • April 26, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Despite the rhetoric to move beyond a perpetual “war on drugs” the Obama administration remains mired in the tough-on-drugs mindset and its Justice Department seems befuddled by the states that have legalized small amounts of marijuana for recreational use.

    The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report revealing that the administration’s goals set out in 2010 have largely not been met. The report noted that the Office of National Drug Control Policy and other federal agencies established “seven Strategy goals related to reducing illicit drug use and its consequences by 2015.” GAO continued, “As of March 2013,” its “analysis showed that of the five goals for which primary data on results were available, one shows progress and four show no progress.”

    But, as The Huffington Post’s Matt Sledge reports drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy has just released another drug control plan that builds on the policies the GAO has said are not working. More troubling, Sledge notes that the drug office’s budget “still devotes less than half of it funds to treatment and prevention. The GAO found that prevention and treatment programs are ‘fragmented’ across 15 federal agencies.”

    In an April 24 post on its web site, the Office of National Drug Control Policy bemoans “illicit drug use,” claiming “drug-induced overdose deaths now surpass homicides and car crashes as the leading cause of injury or death in America.” It also declares “we cannot arrest or incarcerate our way out of the drug problem.”

    The language from the administration’s drug control office is softer than rhetoric about the “war on drugs,” which the Nixon administration launched with the enactment of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) several decades ago. But the administration’s drug control office is not embracing drug legalization or even any changes to the CSA, such as removing marijuana from the list of drugs deemed as dangerous as say heroin.

    The muddled message from the Obama administration -- not helped by its Justice Department’s silence on how it will respond to Colorado and Washington, where officials are crafting measures to implement and regulate the recreational use of marijuana -- is preserving tough-on-drugs policies.

  • March 21, 2013
    BookTalk
    Unlearning Liberty
    Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate
    By: 
    Greg Lukianoff

    by Greg Lukianoff, an attorney and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

    I went to law school with a particular passion in mind: the First Amendment and freedom of speech. Starting at Stanford in 1997, I took virtually every class the law school offered on the First Amendment, completed six additional credits on the origins of the legal theory of “prior restraint” in Tudor England, and worked for the ACLU of Northern California. I was nonetheless unprepared for the kind of censorship I would see on college campuses, first as legal director and then as president of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education(FIRE).

    My recent book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, is my attempt to catalog a small fraction of the terrible cases I’ve seen over the last 11 years and to explain why college censorship matters both on and off campus.

    The cases of censorship I have seen over the years run from the absurd to the serious. I have covered these cases in great detail at The Huffington Post, where I’m a regular contributor, and have for the past two years dubbed some of the offenders the “worst colleges for freedom of speech.” On the high-end of the absurd cases are those involving cartoons, one case involving a quote from the beloved yet short-lived science-fiction series, Firefly, and a politically incorrect flyer that made a joke about the freshman 15, all of which I showcased in an article with the tongue-in-cheek name “Top 10 Pics Too Hot for Campus.”

    I open Unlearning Liberty talking about the currently ongoing legal saga that straddles the chasm between absurd and serious. The case involved a student, Hayden Barnes, who protested against his school, Valdosta State University in southern Georgia, for its decision to build two parking garages on campus. He went about protesting the parking garages by contacting the Board of Regents and writing a letter to the editor of the student newspaper.

  • March 8, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Advocates of privacy rights, especially reproductive rights, have had one challenge after another mostly from state lawmakers bent on destroying those rights.  

    As reported earlier this week, religious groups were successful in lobbying the Arkansas legislature to adopt what The New York Times called the “country’s most restrictive ban on abortion – at 12 weeks” of pregnancy.

    The landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Roe v. Wade, found that the Constitution provides women “the right of personal privacy,” which “includes the abortion decision ….” Like many rights protected in the Constitution it’s not an unlimited one. And the Roe Court found that states have a compelling interest to regulate abortion at the point of viability, usually around 24 weeks, as The Times notes.

    The law’s sponsor, according to The Times, “compared the more than 50 million abortions in the United States since Roe” to the “Holocaust ….”

    That overwrought language is unfortunately typical of too many state lawmakers from coast to coast who for over the past several years have strived to create more laws to make it much more difficult for women to obtain abortions. As former U.S. Solicitor General Walter Dellinger has noted, it’s annoyingly ironic that conservative lawmakers who blasted the Affordable Care Act as attempting to strip liberty from Americans are the ones pushing laws depriving women of their liberties. Women have the ability to make health care decisions for themselves, but right-wing lawmakers are more concerned about embryos, which do not have constitutional rights.

    Because the Arkansas law so blatantly violates Roe, it is likely to be quickly challenged, as it should be.

    Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice American, blasted the law, saying “This is another example of how anti-choice politicians are obsessed with rolling back reproductive rights guaranteed by the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision more than 40 years ago. This law robs women of control over their own lives and puts that control in the hands of politicians in Little Rock. This intrusive, extreme agenda is out of touch with our nation’s values and priorities – and we stand firmly in opposition.”

    Too many state lawmakers have been obsessed with restricting the rights of women. Their priorities are regressive and obnoxious in the face of budget difficulties and people who need jobs or government services to help them become trained for new jobs. Instead of harassing women, state lawmakers should focus on issues that will bolster, not harm their communities.