Honoring Matthew Shepard means remembering all those silenced by hate

October 7 marked the 15th anniversary of Aaron Kreifels finding Matthew Shepard clinging to life in a field outside Laramie, Wyoming. Tomorrow, October 12, marks 15 years since his untimely death.

Those who don't know his story should see The Laramie Project and its Ten Years Later sequel. You should check out Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine.

If you don't know his legacy you should visit the Matthew Shepard Foundation. You should read the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

But don't forget about James Byrd, Jr.

Kevin Pennington.

Lawrence King.

Luis Ramirez.

They and countless others, names familiar and not, lost their lives at the hands of hate. Their void is ours to fill. We must stand up.

Think. Share. Act.

PFAW

Senate hears testimony on government surveillance

The Senate held a hearing Wednesday to discuss government surveillance programs, with particular emphasis on Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act and Section 702 of FISA, which have respectively served as NSA’s justifications for bulk phone records collection and online communications surveillance, and have recently been the subject of some disturbing disclosures about the extent of government intrusion into Americans’ personal lives.

Pressed on these disclosures, representatives from the DOJ, NSA, DNI, and FBI sought to defend the programs as legitimate, arguing that such intelligence-gathering is necessary to prevent terrorism; is not as novel and broad as has been reported; and is checked by the FISA Court, congressional reauthorization, and executive compliance audits.

Critics, however, contested each claim.

When FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce argued that “[e]ach and every tool is valuable [for counterterrorism],” Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) noted:

Contrary to the administration’s public claim of 54 foiled plots, for example, my own recent review of the classified list found nothing close to that number ... after receiving the classified document on plots foiled by 215, I’m far from convinced that it’s been necessary.

Further, after DOJ Deputy Attorney General James Cole pointed to the limited nature of phone database queries in 2012, ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer contended:

Even if the government ran queries on only 300 unique identifiers in 2012, those searches implicated the privacy of millions of Americans … analysts are permitted to examine the call records of all individuals within three “hops” of a specific target. As a result, a query yields information not only about the individual … but about all of those separated from that individual by one, two, or three degrees. Even if one assumes, conservatively, that each person has an average of 40 unique contacts, an analyst who accessed the records of everyone within three hops of an initial target would have accessed records concerning more than two million people.

Finally, in responding to the claim that the public, through Congress, had granted authority for the surveillance through the PATRIOT Act and FISA, Senator Al Franken (D-MN) reasoned:

There’s a balancing act between security and privacy, but when almost everything is done in secret, the public has no way of knowing whether we’re getting the balance right.

And today, the balance has tipped much too far away from our fundamental freedoms. Urge Congress to repeal the PATRIOT Act.

PFAW

UPDATE: Right-wing Florida officials win fight for citizenship data

UPDATE: Secretary of State Ken Detzner says that Florida, which expects imminent access to the SAVE database, will resume the purge and complete it prior to the November election. The Department of Justice is moving forward with its legal challenge.

8/3/2012: New developments continue to shed light on the purge and its far-reaching impact. An article in the Atlantic details the possibility that it could lead to a 2000-style fiasco. A woman who is most certainly alivewas removed from the rolls twice because the state thinks she is dead. The Guardian has profiled several other voters who are battling to preserve their rights. Thankfully, there is some good news, as despite being granted access to the SAVE database, it now looks like county election supervisors won’t be removing more voters from the rolls before the August 14 primary. Officials are being encouraged to proceed cautiously since the state may not be able to settle its ongoing disagreement with the federal government over the purge. In other news, Congresswoman Corrine Brown has filed a lawsuit to try to stop early voting cutbacks.

The federal government has granted Governor Rick Scott and Secretary of State Ken Detzner access to the Department of Homeland Security’s Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) database, further fanning the flame under their voter suppression fire. The move followed last month's ruling that the purge did not violate the National Voter Registration Act.

Voting rights supporters remain concerned about the disenfranchisement of thousands of voters – and rightfully so.

Jonathan Brater, Brennan Center for Justice:

No matter what database Florida has access to, purging voters from the rolls using faulty criteria on the eve of an election could prevent thousands of eligible voters from exercising their rights. Florida must use a more transparent and accurate process, and must leave enough time for voters targeted for removal to be notified and correct errors.

Ion Sancho, Leon County Supervisor of Elections:

[T]hose who have been here in 2000 and 2004 realize that if you produce a list that’s highly inaccurate, in all probability what you’re going to do is disenfranchise legal voters.

Further litigation is expected and also remains underway regarding HB 1355, the Florida law commonly referred to by voting rights supporters as the Voter Suppression Act. Last week, Judge Hinkle’s injunction blocking most of its worst provisions was appealed. HB 1355 was originally sponsored by Representative Dennis Baxley, who has ties to ALEC.

Click here and here for more information, and be sure to check out The Right to Vote under Attack: The Campaign to Keep Millions of Americans from the Ballot Box , a Right Wing Watch: In Focus report by PFAW Foundation.

PFAW Foundation

New guidelines hit the free speech bullseye but miss the mark on bullying prevention

On May 22, a coalition led by the American Jewish Committee and the Religious Freedom Project/First Amendment Center released Harassment, Bullying, and Free Expression: Guidelines for Free and Safe Public Schools. While we welcome the opportunity to keep the anti-bullying conversation going, this particular entrée has a problem.

It concludes:

Prevention of harassment and bullying is essential for healthy, effective public schools.

Agreed.

But that effort must not lead to excessive limitations on the constitutional right of students to freedom of expression.

Agreed.

School officials have an obligation to seek the right balance between upholding free speech and maintain a safe learning environment for all students.

Agreed.

So what’s the problem?

With a clear primacy for speech rights, it tilts the balance too far in one direction.

To understand why let’s start with PFAW’s approach to the issue.

Following the increased media attention paid to bullying-related suicides in 2010, PFAW took a strong stand on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students and those who are perceived to be LGBT.

We supported the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) and comprehensive anti-bullying policies that enumerate specific categories of victims, including students targeted based on sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as SSIA’s provisions for data collection, public education, and grievance procedures.

We supported the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA), which protects students from school-based sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, much like Title IX does for gender discrimination, and much like other areas of law do for various protected classes. SNDA recognizes bullying and harassment as discrimination, and it provides both for remedies against discrimination and incentives for schools to prevent it from happening in the first place.

We didn’t support either at the expense of the Frist Amendment or freedom of speech.

SSIA states:

Nothing in this part shall be construed to alter legal standards regarding, or affect the rights (including remedies and procedures) available to individuals under, other Federal laws that establish protections for freedom of speech or expression.

SNDA states:

Nothing in this Act shall be construed to alter legal standards regarding, or affect the rights available to individuals or groups under, other Federal laws that establish protections for freedom of speech and expression, such as legal standards and rights available to religious and other student groups under the 1st Amendment to the Constitution and the Equal Access Act (20 U.S.C. 4071 et seq.).

Yet the May 22 guidelines say nothing of either bill, very little about the anti-bullying laws and policies already in place in 49 states and DC, and very little about the Department of Education’s October 2010 guidance. In other words, they take anti-bullying policies out of the anti-bullying context altogether and place them in the free speech context.

As the Anti-Defamation League put it in letters to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez:

While we agree that students’ free speech and religious expression rights are important, we strongly disagree with the guidelines’ direct implication that such rights have been given short shrift in current federal and state law and policy and need greater protection.

We completely agree that the free speech rights of students should be defended.

We have every interest in fostering learning environments safe not only for free speech but also for freedom from bullying and harassment.

We hope that we can unite around a common goal of stopping abhorrent behavior that prevents victimized students from accessing a quality education. What should be havens for learning have instead become, for LGBT students and those who are perceived to be LGBT, sites of abject torment. All of our children deserve far better than that.

Click here for PFAW’s comments on bullying ahead of the new school year.

PFAW

UPDATE: Right-wing Florida officials win fight for citizenship data

UPDATE: New developments continue to shed light on the purge and its far-reaching impact. An article in the Atlantic details the possibility that it could lead to a 2000-style fiasco. A woman who is most certainly alivewas removed from the rolls twice because the state thinks she is dead. The Guardian has profiled several other voters who are battling to preserve their rights. Thankfully, there is some good news, as despite being granted access to the SAVE database, it now looks like county election supervisors won’t be removing more voters from the rolls before the August 14 primary. Officials are being encouraged to proceed cautiously since the state may not be able to settle its ongoing disagreement with the federal government over the purge. In other news, Congresswoman Corrine Brown has filed a lawsuit to try to stop early voting cutbacks.

The federal government has granted Governor Rick Scott and Secretary of State Ken Detzner access to the Department of Homeland Security’s Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) database, further fanning the flame under their voter suppression fire. The move followed last month's ruling that the purge did not violate the National Voter Registration Act.

Voting rights supporters remain concerned about the disenfranchisement of thousands of voters – and rightfully so.

Jonathan Brater, Brennan Center for Justice:

No matter what database Florida has access to, purging voters from the rolls using faulty criteria on the eve of an election could prevent thousands of eligible voters from exercising their rights. Florida must use a more transparent and accurate process, and must leave enough time for voters targeted for removal to be notified and correct errors.

Ion Sancho, Leon County Supervisor of Elections:

[T]hose who have been here in 2000 and 2004 realize that if you produce a list that’s highly inaccurate, in all probability what you’re going to do is disenfranchise legal voters.

Further litigation is expected and also remains underway regarding HB 1355, the Florida law commonly referred to by voting rights supporters as the Voter Suppression Act. Last week, Judge Hinkle’s injunction blocking most of its worst provisions was appealed. HB 1355 was originally sponsored by Representative Dennis Baxley, who has ties to ALEC.

Click here and here for more information, and be sure to check out The Right to Vote under Attack: The Campaign to Keep Millions of Americans from the Ballot Box , a Right Wing Watch: In Focus report by PFAW Foundation.

PFAW Foundation

UPDATE: Michigan Primary raises citizenship question

UPDATE: With the so-called Secure and Fair Elections package facing auncertain future, confusion is surely looming for Michigan’s August 7 federal primary election.The vetoed citizenship check box remains, but without legislative force behind it, as Secretary of State Ruth Johnson conceded, checking it remains optional. Left is the question of whether voters know their option or if elections officials will enforce the rule. Elsewhere military access to absentee ballots has been called into question by DOJ.

Are you a citizen? was the question posed by the Michigan Primary even before voters were asked to decide between President Obama or Santorum and Romney.

The question of citizenship is not new:

Under the Michigan Election Law, voters have to swear under oath they are an eligible voter — which includes U.S. citizenship — when they apply to vote and it is verified by the Secretary of State's or local clerks' offices when the application is processed.

What is new is the added step of asking it at the polls.

The Michigan Legislature is considering a bill, sponsored by Sen. Darwin Booher, R-Evart, which requires voters to affirmatively state their citizenship before receiving a ballot at the polls. The bill passed the Senate and was referred to the House Elections and Redistricting Committee. Critics say Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson appears to be implementing an election bill prior to it being signed into law.

[Side note: According to ALEC Exposed, Senator Booher paid ALEC membership dues with taxpayer funds in 2005, 2007 and 2009 while a state representative.]

Katy Flanagan, Project Vote’s Director of Election Administration:

Secretary Johnson appears to be implementing an election bill that hasn’t even passed the House--much less been signed into law. The legislative process would be meaningless if politicians could just enforce the bills they like. Our goal is to ensure no eligible voter is turned away from the polls. To protect everyone’s right to vote, our election officials should be enforcing existing laws, not proposed legislation.

Melanie McElroy, Executive Director of Common Cause Michigan, continues:

Requiring voters to affirm their citizenship, again, at the polls on Election Day and on absentee voter ballot applications is a solution in search of a problem. This new requirement will only confuse long-time voters who affirmed their citizenship when they registered to vote for the first time.

Simply put by Kyle Caldwell, CEO and President of the Michigan Nonprofit Association:

Our elections must be free from fraud and we can do it without creating redundant steps.

Serious concerns have been expressed over Secretary Johnson’s claim that existing authority authorizes this change. And over her claims of its benign application that appeared yesterday to be anything but benign.

Groups have received reports from voters in various precincts around the state who are surprised and angry about this unnecessary and burdensome requirement. Additionally, there are also reports of inconsistent application of this new requirement by election officials.

We’re left with the suspicion that this is yet another tactic that falls right in line with The Right to Vote under Attack: The Campaign to Keep Millions of Americans from the Ballot Box, a Right Wing Watch: In Focus report by PFAW Foundation.

PFAW Foundation

UPDATE: Voter ID trial begins in Pennsylvania

UPDATE: In her testimony, Pennsylvania Secretary of State Carol Aichele conceded,"I don’t know what the law says," and could not support her claim that 99 percent of voters have an acceptable ID, while plaintiffs demonstrated that they have not been able to get it. Closing arguments were heard this morning. A ruling should come in the next few weeks. Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia – where up to 43 percent of voters may lack valid IDhas harshly criticized the law, calling it "a bad solution looking for a problem." Click here for more from ACLUBrennan Center, and  League of Women Voters.

All eyes are on Pennsylvania now that a lawsuit challenging HB 934, the state’s ALEC-tied voter ID law, has gone to trial. Like other unnecessary voter ID laws, this one is expected to disenfranchise thousands if allowed to go into effect, and even state elections officials admit that it would affect more Pennsylvanians than previously estimated. They also concede that there "have been no investigations or prosecutions of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania."

PBS NewsHour:

Watch Without a Photo ID, Some PA Voters Won't Count in November on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Opposition remains strong:

The trial is expected to last a week and will be decided on the basis of the Pennsylvania constitution. But, a federal lawsuit could very well be looming, as well. The Department of Justice has announced that it will investigate whether HB 934 discriminates against minorities, requesting from the state all data used to determine its statistics.

For more information, click here and here, watch this video, and be sure to check out The Right to Vote under Attack: The Campaign to Keep Millions of Americans from the Ballot Box, a Right Wing Watch: In Focus report by PFAW Foundation.

PFAW Foundation

UPDATE: Time is running out for voter ID in Mississippi

UPDATE: Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann rebuked the Brennan Center, claiming that its recent report “is purposely inaccurate and is misleading in its statements about Mississippi.” The Brennan Center stands by its research – “[county offices] are still untested as voting ID issuing offices” – reinforcing the fact that the new law warrants close scrutiny.

Last November, Mississippi voters approved by referendum a voter ID constitutional amendment. Because the amendment required enacting accompanying legislation, the legislature then passed HB 921, which Governor Phil Bryant signed into law on May 17, 2012. ALEC Members Joey Fillingane and Bill Denny were behind these efforts.

We have known for some time that such laws put voting even further out of reach for many vulnerable populations, and recent analysis confirms that the Mississippi law could make it virtually impossible for some of these citizens to vote. Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann has asked state residents to let his office know if they lack ID, and says that they aim to provide free ones. But, that free ID is causing its own problems. Jackson Free Press:

One of the requirements to get the free voter ID cards is a birth certificate, but in order to receive a certified copy of your birth certificate in Mississippi, you must have a photo ID. Not having the photo ID is why most people need the voter ID in the first place.

Fortunately, we have at least a slight reprieve, as it seems very unlikely that the law will go into effect by November. Hosemann said shortly after Governor Bryant signed the bill that it would need to receive Department of Justice approval by July in order to be implemented in time, and as of July 9, Mississippi has yet to apply.

For more information, check out The Right to Vote under Attack: The Campaign to Keep Millions of Americans from the Ballot Box, a Right Wing Watch: In Focus report by PFAW Foundation.

PFAW Foundation

Voter ID trial begins in Pennsylvania

All eyes are on Pennsylvania now that a lawsuit challenging HB 934, the state’s ALEC-tied voter ID law, has gone to trial. Like other unnecessary voter ID laws, this one is expected to disenfranchise thousands if allowed to go into effect, and even state elections officials admit that it would affect more Pennsylvanians than previously estimated. They also concede that there "have been no investigations or prosecutions of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania."

PBS NewsHour:

Watch Without a Photo ID, Some PA Voters Won't Count in November on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Opposition remains strong:

The trial is expected to last a week and will be decided on the basis of the Pennsylvania constitution. But, a federal lawsuit could very well be looming, as well. The Department of Justice has announced that it will investigate whether HB 934 discriminates against minorities, requesting from the state all data used to determine its statistics.

For more information, click here and here, watch this video, and be sure to check out The Right to Vote under Attack: The Campaign to Keep Millions of Americans from the Ballot Box, a Right Wing Watch: In Focus report by PFAW Foundation.

PFAW Foundation

DOJ again rejects South Carolina voter ID

On June 29, the Department of Justice for the second time declined to approve South Carolina’s voter ID law, HB 3003, originally sponsored by ALEC member Alan Clemmons. State Attorney General Alan Wilson sued the federal government after DOJ first rejected the law last year. The trial has been set for September 24. With that late date, the law is unlikely to be in effect by November.

A new Brennan Center report details the extreme lengths to which HB 3003 would force many South Carolinians to go to in order to get required ID. Nearly 275,000 — 8 percent of eligible voters— live 10 miles or more from an ID office that is open more than two days per week. Of these, 7,000 do not have access to cars. Minorities are particularly hard hit, as they are less likely to already have an ID acceptable under these laws and more likely to live far away from an ID office.

The League of Women Voters of South Carolina, represented by the Brennan Center and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, has filed a motion to intervene in the Justice Department’s suit against South Carolina.

Brennan Center Senior Counsel Keesha Gaskins:

It is wrong to pass laws that block some Americans from voting, and to deny them the opportunity to participate equally in our democracy. We are glad the Justice Department stepped in to reject this law, and we urge the federal court to do the same at trial.

For more information, check out The Right to Vote under Attack: The Campaign to Keep Millions of Americans from the Ballot Box, a Right Wing Watch: In Focus report by PFAW Foundation.

PFAW Foundation