people for the american way foundation

PHOTOS: Religious, Political Leaders Join Launch of People For Foundation Report, '12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics'

Last week, People For the American Way Foundation launched a new report, “12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics,” which offers guidelines for policymakers and advocates seeking to bring faith into political debates.

Joining us at a launch party for the report and a discussion of the issues it raises were Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim in Congress; Sister Simone Campbell, director of the Catholic social justice group NETWORK; and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Here are some photos of the event from People For Foundation’s Dylan Hewitt:

Sister Simone Campbell talks with People For’s COO, Nick Ucci 


People For President Michael Keegan, Rep. Keith Ellison, and Senior Fellow Peter Montgomery 

Michael Keegan and Rep. Keith Ellison

Sister Simone Campbell and Rabbi David Saperstein

Rabbi David Saperstein 

Rep. Keith Ellison and Minister Leslie Watson Malachi, director of People For the American Way Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Conference.
 

PFAW Foundation

The Commerce Clause and American Progress

In the Tea Party, it’s all the rage these days to declare everything unconstitutional – Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, disaster relief, federal civil rights laws, health care reform, basically any law that enables the federal government to take on national-scale problems.

One of the main strategies that the Tea Party has been using to push this extreme and regressive view of the Constitution is pushing aside the Commerce Clause, the clause in the Constitution that gives Congress the power “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes.”

The Commerce Clause, long recognized by courts as the rationale for important progressive economic programs, has come under fire from opponents of health care reform, who are arguing in the courts – with mixed success -- that the clause does not allow the Affordable Care Act’s individual health insurance mandate.

In a new report, People For the American Way Foundation Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin argues that “a powerful case can be made “that the Commerce Clause is “the most important constitutional instrument for social progress in our history.”

Without it, Congress could not have passed the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Clayton and Sherman Anti-Trust Acts, the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s prohibition of race discrimination in hotels, restaurants and other places of public accommodation, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and dozens of other federal statutes protecting the environment and establishing the rights of citizens in the workplace and the marketplace.


Why, then, does the Commerce Clause seem pale and dull next to the Free Speech and Equal Protection Clauses?
Perhaps it is because these provisions clearly declare radiant principles of liberty and equality that translate into easily understood and intuitively attractive protections against arbitrary government power.

Because the Commerce Clause has been a powerful instrument of social reform over the last century, its meaning has periodically provoked deep jurisprudential controversy. This is ironic since the Court routinely and unanimously upheld congressional assertion of a comprehensive federal commerce power before broad democratic purposes entered the picture. The commerce power became the target of virulent attack by corporate conservatives when progressives and labor gained political influence and used this power as the constitutional basis upon which to regulate and improve the character, terms and conditions of the American workplace and marketplace in favor of large numbers of the American people.


Raskin follows the Commerce Clause from its origins at the Constitutional Convention, through the Lochner era, when an activist court “put the Commerce Clause in a straightjacket” to strike down federal worker protection laws and other attempts to regulate interstate commerce, to the late 1930s, when the court returned to a more expansive view of the clause, allowing progressive economic programs and civil rights reforms to flourish, to the Rehnquist Court, which again began to narrow down the scope of Congress’s constitutional regulatory power, to challenges to the Affordable Care Act, which threaten to take us back to the Lochner era.
 

You can read the full report here.

PFAW

New York Couple Denied Marriage Rights; PFAW Foundation Helps them Fight Back

When Katie Carmichael and Deirdre DiBiaggio went to their town clerk in Ledyard, New York recently to obtain a marriage license, they were met with an unwelcome surprise. The town clerk, Rose Marie Belforti, refused to grant them a license because she objected to New York’s new law legalizing same-sex marriages. She told Carmichael and DiBiaggio to come back on another day to obtain a license from a subordinate officer.

Marriage equality loses some of its “equality” when same-sex couples are forced to jump through hoops that weren’t there before in order to obtain a marriage license. Carmichael and DiBiaggio contacted People For the American Way Foundation to help them fight back against this clear instance of discrimination. PFAW Foundation recruited the law firm Proskauer Rose, LLP to provide pro bono counsel to the couple, and the firm sent a letter to town officials urging the town clerk to follow the laws of the state or resign her position.

In a town meeting on Monday night, the issue of the clerk’s refusal to do her job was not addressed. In response, PFAW Foundation launched a petition demanding that Belforti to perform her job duties, follow the laws of New York and grant same-sex marriage licenses or resign her post.

You can sign the petition here.
 

PFAW

Kathleen Turner Praises the YEO Network

The actress Kathleen Turner, who has been a People For the American Way Foundation board member for more than 20 years, stopped by WGN in Chicago last Thursday to discuss her career and her work with People For. Turner, who was in town for the first of PFAW Foundation’s 30th anniversary celebrations, had special praise for the Young Elected Officials Network.

Watch the video at WGN.

The YEO Network, which includes hundreds of elected officials around the country, earlier this summer met with President Obama and White House officials.
 

PFAW

Anonymous Attacks Against LA Progressives

This summer, an organization called Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) finds itself the target of dozens of baseless public records requests instigated by an anonymous right wing entity apparently seeking to intimidate and harass the organization.

LAANE has long fought for policies to raise wages, protect the environment, and enhance community input on new box stores. In other words, they have gotten in the way when giant corporations have put profit maximization over the rights of workers, consumers, and communities. Perhaps that is why they now find themselves the subject of an extensive fishing expedition for public records that can be taken out of context and demagogued ad nauseam.

An opposition research company that has worked with conservative candidates and causes in California has sent dozens of letters to public officials across the state demanding all communications between LAANE and more than 70 public officials going back a number of years.

So who hired the opposition research firm? Who is it that is apparently hoping to use public disclosure laws to do a hatchet job on LAANE?

Good question, since they refuse to identify themselves.

At least when conservatives in Wisconsin and Michigan used baseless public records requests to intimidate and harass academics at public universities, we knew which far right pro-corporate entities were doing it (ALEC and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy).

In light of the numerous deceptive actions designed to destroy Planned Parenthood, ACORN, NPR, and Shirley Sherrod, it is more important than ever to fight right wing efforts to smear people and organizations who they see as standing in the way of their agenda.

People For the American Way stands with LAANE in demanding an end to the anonymous attack, and you can, too, by signing this petition calling on those who are behind the attack on LAANE to reveal their identities. Democracy is strengthened by the free and robust exchange of ideas and arguments, not by anonymous efforts to intimidate and discredit those who disagree with you.

PFAW

The Play Rick Perry Didn’t Want Performed

The Austin Chronicle has set up a new Twitter account devoted exclusively to digging up old stories on the shenanigans of Texas Gov. Rick Perry. They’ve pulled up some good stuff, including this story from last year on the governor’s involvement in shutting a planned student production of a controversial play at Texas’ Tarleton State University.

The play in question was Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi, which provoked a furor from Religious Right groups when it was first released in 1998 because of its depiction of a gay Christ. The production was canceled after the playwright and theater staff received death threats, but it was later reinstated – with metal detectors at the door. People For the American Way Foundation was among the groups defending the right of the play to be put on in peace at the time, staging "A Quiet Walk for the First Amendment" in front of the theater on opening night.

How times have not changed. When a student at Tarleton State started working on a production of Corpus Christi last year, he ran up against opposition from none other than Texas’ Lieutenant Governor, David Dewhurst. Dewhurst issued a press release attacking the student production as a “lewd display” and “morally reprehensible to the vast majority of Americans.” The backlash unleashed by Dewhurst’s statement was so strong that the professor in charge of the show ultimately decided to cancel it and three other student productions because of “safety and security concerns for the students.”


While Perry’s deputy was the public face of the opposition to the show, the Chronicle dug up a tidbit from the Texas GOP website that made it clear that the governor himself was not only aware of but also involved in the censorship effort:


In a "thank you" note on the Texas GOP Vote website, Conservative Republicans of Texas President Steve Hotze gives credit (a-hem) to Dewhurst for his moment of censoriousness, but then adds this interesting little factoid:


We also owe a debt of gratitude to Governor Perry for his behind the scenes work to stop the play at Tarleton State. Ray Sullivan, the Governor’s Chief of Staff, was notified of the play on Thursday and after discussing it with the Governor, the necessary steps were taken to ensure that its performance was canceled.


This all brings to mind the GOP’s latest successful censorship attempt, targeting a recent exhibition about gays and lesbians in American Art at the National Portrait Gallery. Like the criticism of Corpus Christi, the criticism of the exhibit centered on both its acknowledgement of gay people and on a depiction of Christ that some on the Religious Right found objectionable. The groups targeting the exhibit were led by the far-right Catholic League, which also, not coincidently, was a leader in the fight against the original production of Corpus Christi.

The success of Religious Right censorship campaigns depends, in a large part, on the willingness of elected officials to play along. In the 1980s and 1990s, Jesse Helms took on the role of censorship champion. In the most recent Smithsonian scandal, John Boehner and Eric Cantor were more than willing to echo the complaints of far-right groups like the Catholic League. And if Perry’s involvement in the Tarleton Corpus Christi incident is any indication, if he were president he would be happy to lend his hand to similar efforts.

PFAW

The Supreme Court for Beginners

Do you care about clean elections, fair pay, civil rights, environmental protections, and the right to seek justice when you’ve been wronged?

Then you should care a whole lot about the Supreme Court.

In a new video, People For the American Way Foundation provides an animated guide to the Supreme Court and how its decisions impact all Americans. Enjoy:

 

PFAW

Today's Supreme Court: Not Since the Gilded Age

There was once a Monty Python sketch about Dennis Moore, a confused Robin Hood wannabe who steals from the poor and gives to the rich. Minus the laugh track, that more and more seems to be the mission of the Corporate Court. The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne has a terrific column on this: "The Supreme Court's Continuing Defense of the Powerful."

The United States Supreme Court now sees its central task as comforting the already comfortable and afflicting those already afflicted.

If you are a large corporation or a political candidate backed by lots of private money, be assured that the court's conservative majority will be there for you, solicitous of your needs and ready to swat away those pesky little people who dare to contest your power.

After discussing some of the outrages of the arch-conservative majority, Dionne writes:

[P]ay heed to how this conservative court majority bristles at nearly every effort to give the less wealthy and less powerful an opportunity to prevail, whether at the ballot box or in the courtroom. Not since the Gilded Age has a Supreme Court been so determined to strengthen the hand of corporations and the wealthy.

People For the American Way Foundation recently submitted testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee analyzing the ominous pro-corporate tilt of the Roberts Court in the term that just ended.

PFAW

Senate Judiciary Committee Exposes the Corporate Court

The Senate Judiciary Committee held an important hearing this morning looking into the disturbing trend of the Roberts Court to shut down people’s access to justice when they go to court to vindicate their rights against large corporations.

The hearing was on Barriers to Justice and Accountability: How the Supreme Court's Recent Rulings Will Affect Corporate Behavior. Chairman Leahy opened the hearing discussing how recent Supreme Court cases are making it harder for working Americans to get their day in court. He expressed particular concern about three cases:

  • Wal-Mart v. Dukes, which will make it harder to hold big companies accountable when they violate civil rights laws;
  • Janus Capital Group v. First Derivative Traders, which shielded from accountability those who knowingly committed securities fraud; and
  • AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, which prevents victims of consumer fraud from the protections of jury trials and class actions.

The committee invited four distinguished people to address the issue: Betty Dukes (plaintiff in the sex discrimination case against Wal-Mart) was the one panelist who was also a party to one of the cases being discussed. She spoke poignantly about her experience at Wal-Mart and the fear that so many women have of going against their employer, especially one as powerful as Wal-Mart. She promised to continue her fight, but knows that without a national class action, many women will be intimidated into not litigating.

Andrew J. Pincus (a Washington lawyer who has argued many cases before the Court) and Robert Alt (from the Heritage Foundation) denied that the Court was tilting unfairly to favor corporations, argued that the cases were decided rightly, and stated that the Court was simply upholding existing law. In contrast, Melissa Hart (law professor at the University of Colorado) and James Cox (law professor at Duke) took the position that the Court is wrongly shielding wrongdoers from accountability.

Professor Hart correctly characterized as a policy decision the Roberts Court's tendency to interpret procedural law so restrictively, despite congressional intent otherwise, so that Americans become unable to present their case to an impartial court.

Senator Whitehouse discussed the critical role juries play in American government. He noted that juries are mentioned three times in the Constitution, and that they remain a government institution that Big Business cannot corrupt. For years, the far right has been denigrating "trial lawyers" and "runaway juries" in an effort to keep Americans from being able to hold the powerful accountable. Whitehouse argued that the Roberts Court is acting consistently with that pattern.

People For the American Way Foundation submitted testimony to the committee on how the Roberts Court has removed substantive and procedural protections that are the only way that individuals can avoid becoming victimized by giant corporations that dwarf them in size, wealth, and power. These decisions often provide road maps to corporate interests in how to avoid accountability for harm that they do. The constitutional design empowering individuals to consolidate their power against corporations is slowly being eroded by a fiercely ideological Court. Today's hearing is part of an effort to expose the harm that is being done.

PFAW

A Call to Action: Restore Equal Employment Opportunities in America

Saturday was the 70th anniversary of President Roosevelt’s issuance of Executive Order 8802, which prohibited racial discrimination by defense contractors. Last week, Congressman Bobby Scott hosted a press conference and briefing in honor of the anniversary of this event, which marked the first time a U.S. president had acted to combat discrimination by private employers who were using federal taxpayer money. Future presidents expanded on President Roosevelt’s action and added to its protections.

However, this was more than just a celebratory event of an important civil rights milestone: it was a call to action to correct an erosion of equal employment opportunity law that has been in effect since 2002. That’s when President Bush signed an Executive Order that made discrimination on the basis of religion by faith-based organizations using federal taxpayer money legal. In so doing, he reversed our nation’s continuous expansion of the promise of equal protection and opened a gaping hole in our nation’s civil rights protections. Religious entities had always been able to discriminate based on religion using their own money, but never to use taxpayer money to do so.

All the panelists were united in asking President Obama to fulfill his campaign promise of restoring the law. On the panel were: Congressman Bobby Scott (convener of the event); Congressman Jerrold Nadler; Professor Eric Arnesen (professor of history at George Washington University and biographer of civil rights and labor leader A. Philip Randolph, whose activism prompted FDR’s executive order); Rabbi David Saperstein (Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and also a board member of our affiliated People For the American Way Foundation); Barbara Arnwine (Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law); Hilary Shelton (Director of the NAACP Washington Bureau); and Rev. Dr. Paul L. Brown, Sr. (Pastor of Miles Memorial CME Church and member of People For the American Way’s African American Ministers In Action).

Among other things, speakers discussed how employment discrimination harms the victims and society as a whole; warned that religion can easily be used as a proxy for race, sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity; condemned discrimination paid for by the tax dollars of its victims; asked why the religion of someone ladling out soup for the hungry should matter; and warned of the dangerous consequences to churches that want to retain federal funding they have become dependent on. As the last speaker, Rev. Dr. Brown opened a window into his daily work helping the hungry and the homeless, the “least and the lost,” and strongly condemned federally funded discrimination.

When he was running for President, then-Senator Obama promised to reverse President Bush’s policy, but he has yet to do so. What better time than the anniversary of the issuance of Executive Order 8802 for President Obama to put our nation back on the right road and restore through executive order the prohibition against federally funded discrimination? Yesterday, People For the American Way and African American Ministers In Action joined more than 50 other civil rights and religious organizations asking him to do just that.

PFAW

YEO Network Meets with Obama Administration

UPDATE: The White House has posted some great video interviews with YEOs. 

Last Friday, 200 members of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network visited the White House to talk with Obama administration officials and meet the president. The elected officials, all progressives under the age of 35, were able to discuss their concerns about issues including the economy, immigration, health care and education with highly placed administration officials including Council of Economic Advisors Chairman Austan Goolsbee, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra. The elected officials then attended an intimate reception with President Obama.

The White House has a blog post on the event here, and below are some photos by YEO staff and network members.

(Photo: YEO Network member)

Young Elected Officials at White House policy briefing (Photo: Matthew Lesser)

President Obama speaks to the Young Elected Officials Network (Photo: YEO Network member)

 President Obama greets Young Elected Officials (Photo: YEO Network member)

 The YEO Network's Women's Caucus at the White House (Photo: YEO Network member)


The YEO Network’s Black Caucus at the White House (Photo: YEO Network member)

PFAW

PFAW Foundation Honors Young, Progressive Elected Officials

Saint Paul City Councilman Melvin Carter and Wisconsin State Senator Chris Larson

Last weekend, about 200 young, progressive elected officials gathered in Washington at the sixth annual convening of PFAW Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network. The Network, which includes over 600 state and local elected officials from across the country, honored five of its own who have done exceptional work in their communities over the past year.

City Councilman Melvin Carter of St. Paul, Minnesota was awarded the YEO Network’s Barbara Jordan Leadership Award. The award, named after PFAW Foundation co-founder Barbara Jordan, honors “a young elected official who has shown dedication and support to the YEO Network and has a distinguished record of public service to their community and the progressive movement at large.”

Carter, who is now the YEO Network’s Minnesota state director, became involved in politics after his brother was turned away from a Florida polling place in the 2000 elections. As an elected official, he has continued to work for voting rights and for equal rights and opportunity in his community. In 2009, Carter founded the Frogtown/Summit-University Community Investment Campus, a partnership between city, county, school, and community leaders to support high quality education outcomes for all children. Another priority of his is transit equity: he’s working to create opportunities for local businesses and affordable housing along a planned light rail line in St. Paul.

PFAW Foundation’s president, Michael Keegan, presented the Presidential Award of Distinction to Wisconsin State Senator Chris Larson, one of the state senators who left the state this winter to try to prevent a union-busting law from being passed. Larson has been a strong voice for working people in Wisconsin and around the country.

South Dakota State Senator Angie Buhl was awarded the YEO Network Leadership Award for her deep commitment to the YEO Network and People For the American Way Foundation. Sen. Buhl, who is the youngest member of South Dakota’s legislature, is a graduate of both of PFAW Foundation’s youth leadership programs, Young People For and the Front Line Leaders Academy.

Florida State Representative Dwight Bullard was awarded the YEO Progressive Leadership Award for his commitment to fighting for justice and opportunity in the Florida legislature. Representative Bullard is a fierce advocate for both education and immigration reform.

Massachusetts State Representative Sean Garballey was awarded the YEO Community Service Award for his commitment to servant leadership. In 2009, Rep. Garballey donated his share of a pay increase to state legislators to charity, because he did not believe it was fair for his pay to increase while the staff that works tirelessly to support him was being forced to take furloughs. He has also been active in supporting recovery efforts in Haiti after last year’s devastating earthquake.

PFAW

A Supreme Court Win for John Ashcroft, a Grim Reminder for the Rest of Us

Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously (with Justice Kagan recused) that former Attorney General John Ashcroft cannot be personally sued for alleged abuse of material-witness arrests in the days after the 9/11 attacks. In the weeks and months after 9/11, innocent people were being rounded up by the federal government with little to no evidence against them through abuse of the Material Witness Statute. However, the Justices agreed that what Ashcroft did was not in violation of "clearly established law" at the time, so he cannot be personally sued for money damages.

But that unanimity hides a deep divide on other issues. Justice Ginsburg's concurrence reminds us of the lawless nature of the Bush Administration. She asks:

what even arguably legitimate basis could there be for the harsh custodial conditions to which al-Kidd was subjected: Ostensibly held only to secure his testimony, al-Kidd was confined in three different detention centers during his 16 days' incarceration, kept in high-security cells lit 24 hours a day, strip searched and subjected to body-cavity inspections on more than one occasion, and handcuffed and shackled about his wrists, legs, and waist.

...

[His] ordeal is a grim reminder of the need to install safeguards against disrespect for human dignity, constraints that will control officialdom even in perilous times.

Americans should never forget the many ways that the Bush Administration violated basic American constitutional principles and the rule of law. After 9/11, People For the American Way Foundation led the nation in exposing and condemning the Ashcroft Justice Department's multifaceted threats to liberty.

Perhaps if the threats had been against Big Business's bottom line, today's corporate-funded Tea Partiers would have joined us in protecting the Constitution. Their silence then makes shameful their current efforts to appropriate the Constitution as uniquely theirs.

PFAW

The Right's Use of Records Requests to Chill Dissent and Attack Academics

In Wisconsin and Michigan, we are seeing what appears to be the latest right wing tool to intimidate and harass its critics: extensive – and baseless – public records requests against academics at public universities. The consequences for the free and open debate on which our democracy depends are serious indeed.

Last week, Wisconsin Republicans clamped down on criticisms of their party's efforts to undermine workers' rights by filing a broad demand for copies of all of the emails of University of Wisconsin-Madison history professor William Cronon that mention Governor Scott Walker, the eight Republican state senators who have been targeted for recall, or unions that represent government employees. Cronon had recently penned a blog post calling attention to the work of a little-known group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and its apparently significant influence on Republican state lawmakers, including those in Wisconsin such as Governor Walker. The message was clear. Criticize what we do and we'll come after you to see what we can dig up to smear you with.

Any thought that this might be an isolated response was quickly shattered when similar requests were made for Wisconsin-related e-mails at three Michigan universities. Rather than being from the Wisconsin GOP, these were from a right-wing organization called the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. They filed requests for e-mails of the faculty of the University of Michigan Labor Studies Center, the Douglas A. Fraser Center for Workplace Issues at Wayne State University, and the Labor Education Program of Michigan State University. The requests cover not only e-mails relating to the Wisconsin clash over the labor rights, but, according to press reports, also any e-mails mentioning Rachel Maddow.

Aside from their far right conservative ideologies, the Mackinac Center and ALEC have something else in common: Although not well known among the general public, they are part of a network of right wing ideological organizations that have been heavily funded over the years by many of the same small group of wealthy funders, including the billionaire Koch Brothers, the Coors family, the Scaife family, and corporate giant Exxon Mobil.

It is not likely a coincidence that these two right wing organizations employed the same unusual tactics in two different states just days apart. Who knows where they will go next. Clearly this is a pattern. And, unfortunately, it's a familiar one. Just as in the McCarthy era, academics face intimidation and harassment and possible threats to their reputations if they take public stands against the far right. The specific method of intimidation may be different (i.e., public records requests), but the goal is the same.

This intimidation is as insidious now as it was more than half a century ago, because it does not matter that the targets have done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide. As we have seen, all it took was one purloined e-mail, taken out of context and distorted beyond all recognition, to manufacture the phony "Climategate" scandal that threatened the reputation of climate scientists around the world and set back climate change regulations by years.

Anyone doubting that the far right is both willing and able to destroy their reputations with such distortions needs look no farther than the devastating video "exposés" of ACORN, NPR, and Planned Parenthood. The ACORN video came first and essentially destroyed the organization. In the best traditions of McCarthyism, the right now uses any association with ACORN to discredit its opponents. They are hoping for equal success with NPR and Planned Parenthood.

People For the American Way strongly supports the Freedom of Information Act and its state and local equivalents. Opening government records to the public serves as an essential check on the abuse of government power. Indeed, the Bush Administration prepared for its long war against civil liberties in the administration's early days by essentially reversing the Clinton Administration's presumption that FOIA requests should generally be granted unless there is some reason to deny it.

Such laws exist to expand public dialogue and the dissemination of information affecting the public welfare. But the rights granted by FOIA laws, like so many others, have limitations and can be abused. A demand for information can be made not to hold government accountable and enhance public debate, but instead to harass, intimidate, suppress public debate, and keep information and opinions out of the public square. This is particularly true when it is aimed at individuals in state academic institutions.

That's what we see happening in Wisconsin and Michigan.

The public has a right to know about the activities of government entities working in its name. When a government entity has the authority to issue licenses, allocate funds, imprison people, conduct safety inspections, conduct elections – the core activities of government, all of which have substantial impacts on individuals, businesses, and groups – open records laws can help ensure that these tasks are done lawfully, without favoritism or waste. Reflecting how often members of the public request such information, many government organizations have entire offices dedicated to fulfilling these records requests.

So how often does a member of the public submit a record request for, say, the Labor Studies Center at the University of Michigan? I asked Roland Zullo, a research scientist there. He had to think about it because such requests are so rare, but he thinks the last one was about five years ago, a fishing expedition from a conservative organization essentially seeking all of their records going back to the 1950s. When the organization learned how much it would have to pay to cover the costs of its truly expansive request, it apparently backed off.

The Supreme Court has recognized the unique role that universities, including public universities, play in maintaining our liberties. As it stated in 1957, during the McCarthy era, "[t]eachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die."

That is why the American Historical Society has strongly condemned the efforts by Wisconsin Republicans to intimidate Professor Cronon:

The purpose of the state's Open Records Law is to promote informed public conversation. Historians vigorously support the freedom of information act traditions of the United States of which this law is a part. In this case, however, the law has been invoked to do the opposite: to find a pretext for discrediting a scholar who has taken a public position. This inquiry will damage, rather than promote, public conversation. It will discourage other historians (and scholars in other disciplines) employed by public institutions from speaking out as citizen-scholars in their blogs, op-ed pieces, articles, books, and other writings.

We should recognize that public universities are a unique hybrid. They are funded by the public, and we should be able to ensure that taxpayer money is being spent efficiently and legally. But their work also contributes to the robust debate over public issues without which our freedom will die. And that debate requires that we protect academic freedom and ensure that faculty have no reason to feel intimidated for asking difficult questions, conducting their research and writings, and making statements that those in power do not wish to hear.

That is the American Way.

PFAW

Will the Supreme Court Close the Door to Civil Rights Lawsuits?

Today, the Supreme Court is hearing hear oral arguments in Fox v. Vice, a case that threatens to choke off future civil rights litigation. People For the American Way Foundation has joined an amicus brief protecting the right of people to sue to protect their basic rights.

In a federal civil rights lawsuit, where the government or a government official is being sued, a trial court can sometimes order the plaintiff to pay the defendant's legal fees. The law allows this if (1) the defendant is the prevailing party and (2) the plaintiff's case was frivolous. In Fox v. Vice, the Supreme Court is being asked to interpret this law. The potential exposure to paying a defendant's legal fees serves as an obvious deterrent to bringing suit, and it's important, therefore that it be narrowly construed in order not to violate Congress's intent to empower people to vindicate their rights in the courts.

In this case, Ricky Fox sued the local chief of police, Billy Ray Vice, based on two incidents that took place after both men had announced their competing candidacies for the police chief job. Fox claimed that Vice, the incumbent, sent him an "anonymous" letter attempting to blackmail him into not running for office. The next month, Vice allegedly encouraged someone to file a false police report about Fox.

Fox claimed that these acts violated both federal civil rights laws and state tort laws. The case was before a federal court, and Fox eventually acknowledged that he had no valid federal claim. So the trial court judge dismissed the federal claims and remanded the state civil claims to state court for future adjudication. The judge also ruled that the federal claims had been frivolous, and he ordered the plaintiff to pay the defendant's legal fees related to the frivolous claims.

However, because the frivolous and non-frivolous claims were all based on the same set of facts, it was nearly impossible to disentangle legal fees for one from legal fees for the other. So the district court judge classified them all as being for the frivolous federal claims and ordered the plaintiff to pay the entire legal bill. Fox ended up paying the legal fees that will be used by the defendant to oppose Fox's own non-frivolous state court claims still to be litigated. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision.

If the Supreme Court affirms this decision, it could severely chill civil rights lawsuits. It sets up a standard where plaintiffs risk having to pay all of the defendant's legal fees even if only one of their claims is judged frivolous. To make matters worse, it is very hard to predict what a judge will consider frivolous. Even judges hearing the same case at the same time may differ wildly as to whether it is frivolous. The standard adopted by the lower court would discourage civil rights plaintiffs from pursuing novel legal theories and create a powerful disincentive against filing valid civil rights suits in the first place.

In considering the case, the Supreme Court should be consistent with Congress's intent to encourage meritorious suits and discourage frivolous ones. It should rule that legal fees should not be awarded in federal civil rights cases when a plaintiff's "frivolous" claim is factually intertwined with non-frivolous claims.

The Roberts Court has devised numerous ways to close the courthouse door to innocent people seeking to vindicate their rights. By the end of the Court's term, we will learn whether Fox v. Vice will join cases like Ledbetter v. Goodyear in the Roberts Court's Hall of Shame.

PFAW

Updates from the Front Lines of Wisconsin

Below you will see live Facebook updates from State Rep. Kelda Roys of Wisconsin, a member of People For the American Way Foundation's Young Elected Officials Network. She has been repeatedly denied entry to the state Capitol as a result of the protests against Gov. Walker's attempt to obliterate Wisconsin's public employee unions under the guise of fiscal reform.

UPDATE:

Check out Rep. Roys' coverage of the protests: 

PFAW

Revitalizing Neighborhoods: The YEO Network Tours Baltimore

Last week, People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network gathered in Baltimore to talk about ways states and municipalities can address the foreclosure crisis and promote neighborhood stabilization. On Saturday, 40 of the elected officials toured Baltimore to find out about creative ways city residents are working to revitalize troubled neighborhoods.

Baltimore's Fox 45 News met up with the group and interviewed Andrew Gillum, the YEO Network's director:

The first stop of the tour was the Whitelock Community Farm in the Reservoir Hill area. Whitelock, on a formerly vacant commercial lot, is tended by neighborhood residents. It sells produce to neighbors and donates food to a local soup kitchen.

 

 Whitelock Farm’s Thor Nelson shows YEOs around the farm’s greenhouse:

 

 In Central Baltimore, an area that had been losing residents…

...became the site of a brand new affordable housing for artists connected to the nearby Maryland Institute College of Art:

Charlie Duff of Jubilee Baltimore, one of the developers behind the project, showed the YEOs around one of the apartments:

Finally, the YEOs visited Load of Fun Gallery, an arts venue in Central Baltimore that uses the graffiti-covered alley behind it to host performances and events:


 

PFAW

PFAW Joins Drop Fox Campaign, Makes it onto Glenn Beck’s Blackboard

You can imagine our delight here at People For when we finally made it on to Glenn Beck’s infamous conspiracy theory-promoting blackboard last night. You can watch the clip here:

Note that, contrary to Beck’s assertions, People For the American Way is not a 501c(3) group…and, moreover, 501(c)3 groups like People For the American Way Foundation are not allowed to participate in partisan political activity at all.

Beck is gradually expanding the reach of his broad conspiracy involving progressive groups to include as many as possible, it seems. But we’d like to think that our inclusion has something to do with the petition campaign People For and Media Matters have launched urging Fox News advertisers to drop their support of the network—because they are indirectly subsidizing Beck.

Beck, of course, has every right to criticize progressive groups on the air. But his rhetoric frequently verges on violent, and has led, on more than one occasion, to actual or attempted violence against those involved in the progressive movement.

Sign People For and Media Matters' Drop Fox petition here.

And read the full letter Tides Foundation CEO Drummond Pike sent to Fox advertisers last month after he was the victim of a Beck-inspired assassination attempt:

Dear Fox Advertiser,

I am writing to ask your company to take a simple step that may well save lives in the future. And it is not unimportant that taking this action will remove your company and its products from any connection to what could very likely be an unpleasant tragedy, should things remain as they are today. On behalf of my organization, and many others like it, I ask that you cease advertising on the Fox News Channel.

This is neither a hollow request, nor one rhetorically made. There is an urgency to it born of our own direct experience as the target of a would-be assassin inspired by Fox's Glenn Beck Show.

On July 19th of this year, I arrived at our San Francisco office to learn that a misguided person carrying numerous guns and body armor had been on his way to start a "revolution" by murdering my colleagues and me. The Oakland Police Department called to tell us that, following a 12 minute shootout with the California Highway Patrol, law enforcement officials arrested an assailant who had targeted the Tides Foundation, an organization which I founded and currently serve as CEO, and the ACLU for violence. To say we were "shocked" does not adequately describe our reaction. Imagine, for a moment, that you were us and, had it not been for a sharp eyed highway patrolman, a heavily armed man in full body armor would have made it to your office with the intent to kill you and your colleagues. His motive? Apparently, it was because the charitable, nonpartisan programs we run are deemed part of a conspiracy to undermine America and the capitalist system, which is hogwash.

Although not a political organization, the Tides Foundation has been a frequent target of misinformation, propaganda, and outright lies by Fox News' Glenn Beck. Since his arrival at Fox in early 2009, Beck has repeatedly vilified Tides, suggesting we are intent on "creat[ing] a mass organization to seize power." He accuses the foundation of indoctrination and says we are "involved in some of the nastiest of the nasty." Beck tells viewers that Tides has "funneled" money to "some of the most extreme groups on the left" and that our mission is to "warp your children's brains and make sure they know how evil capitalism is." In total, prior to the attempted rampage, Beck had attacked the Tides Foundation 29 times. On September 28th, more than a month after the shooting, Beck reiterated his focus on the Tides Foundation, warning, "I'm coming for you." In jailhouse interviews, the gunman confessed he views Beck as a "schoolteacher" who "blew my mind." My would-be killer admitted that Beck "give[s] you every ounce of evidence you could possibly need" to commit violence.

Beck is a self-described "Progressive Hunter" who relies on violent rhetoric. Do you really think that the millions of Americans who describe themselves as "progressive" need to be "hunted down"? If so, to what end?

For hours every day on radio and television, Beck pits American against American, telling his audience that our country is under attack by a demonic Nazi-like regime seeking to destroy all that is great about America while insisting it's up to his viewers to resist and revolt. He warned his audience that "these are the most dangerous two years of our republic. Because in the end, in revolutions, the real dangerous killers show up." Beck even compared our government to vampires while instructing his viewers to "drive a stake through the heart of the bloodsuckers" and pretended to poison Speaker Pelosi on television. A few months later, Gregory Giusti was arrested for repeatedly threatening House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- including threatening to destroy her home -- because he was upset over health care reform. The man's mother told a local news station he listens to those with "really radical ideas," adding, "I'd say Fox News or all of those that are really radical."

When I started the Tides organizations 35 years ago, I did so in the very American belief that ordinary citizens had a role to play in our democratic process. It was, I thought, the responsibility of everyone to become engaged in our civic life, and for years we've worked with thousands of Americans to do just that. And, while we support progressive values and goals, we respect the rights and voices of those with whom we disagree on issues. Never in our history have we tolerated employees or grantees that support those who would do harm to others. By supporting Fox News Channel, you and your company are risking your reputation and good standing because they are doing just this.

As you may know, a coordinated advertiser boycott by Media Matters and Color of Change, an online civil rights group, has caused Glenn Beck's Fox News show to lose over 100 sponsors. Despite the campaign's success, Fox insists it has had no impact on the channel's profitability because the overall demand for advertisements on Fox has remained stable. Companies are still paying to advertise on Fox News, but their ads are simply moved to a different time of day. Thus, businesses that pay to broadcast commercials on Fox News are subsidizing Glenn Beck's television show by continuing to pump money into the network. It has become clear that the only way to stop supporting Beck is to stop supporting Fox News.

I respectfully request that you bring this matter of your company's sponsorship of hate speech leading to violence to the attention of your fellow directors as soon as possible. I believe no responsible company should advertise on Fox News due to its recent and on-going deplorable conduct.

While we may agree to disagree about the role our citizens and our government should play in promoting social justice and the common good, there should be no disagreement about what constitutes integrity and professionalism and responsibility in discourse – even when allowing for and encouraging contending diverse opinions intelligently argued. This is not a partisan issue. It's an American issue. No one, left, right or center, wants to see another Oklahoma City.

The next "assassin" may succeed, and if so, there will be blood on many hands. The choice is yours. Please join my call to do the right thing in this regard and put Fox News at arm's length from your company by halting your advertising with them.

Sincerely,

Drummond Pike
CEO and Founder, Tides


 

PFAW

Supreme Court Considers Class Action Ban

Corporate interests already exercise an inordinate level of control over Americans' daily lives. This morning, in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that threatens to give yet another advantage to powerful corporations over individual Americans. AT&T is essentially asking the Court to take a wrecking ball to state consumer protection laws.

At issue is whether states have the right to protect consumers from contracts that are so unfair as to be unconscionable - where one party has so much bargaining power over the other that the weaker one has little choice but to agree to highly disadvantageous terms.

This case started when AT&T offered phone purchasers a "free" second phone, then charged the consumers for the taxes on the undiscounted price of the "free" phone. AT&T allegedly pulled this scam on thousands of its customers. One of its victims, the Concepcions, brought a class action suit against AT&T. However, AT&T had a service contract where consumers had to agree to resolve any future claims against the cell phone company through arbitration, rather than the courts. In addition, customers had to agree not to participate in any class action against AT&T. So AT&T asked the court to enforce the agreement it had imposed upon the Concepcions by throwing out the class action suit and forcing them into arbitration, one lone family against AT&T without the protections of courts of law or neutral judges.

However, the court denied AT&T's motion, determining that the "no class action" contractual provision was unconscionable under California law and, therefore, not enforceable. Moreover, the court rejected AT&T's claim that the Federal Arbitration Act preempts state law in this case, making the contract fully enforceable against the Concepcions. (The Federal Arbitration Act generally encourages courts to compel arbitration in accordance with the terms of arbitration agreements.) The Ninth Circuit upheld the lower court decision. However, hoping to get a different result from the corporate-friendly Roberts Court, AT&T appealed.

As countless Americans can attest, it is not at all uncommon for a giant telecommunications service provider to provide extremely complex monthly bills that are nearly impossible for the average person to understand. It is certainly not unheard of for such bills to hide relatively small charges for services never ordered, or mysterious taxes or fees that the company should not be charging. Unfortunately, the vast majority of consumers who are cheated in these situations don't even realize it. Moreover, because the amounts at issue are relatively little, there is little incentive for consumers to undertake the significant expenses of recovering their loss. Even when the company pays out to the tiny percentage of defrauded customers who go to the trouble to engage in lone arbitration against the company, the overall scheme remains profitable.

Class actions are a tool that allows the entire universe of cheated consumers to recoup their losses, making possible a potentially significant financial loss to the company that sets out to defraud its customers. If the Supreme Court rules for AT&T, it will devastate state-level consumer protections and essentially grant a permission slip for rampant corporate fraud against consumers.

As the Alliance For Justice points out in its excellent analysis of this case, it is not only consumer protections that are at risk should AT&T win this case. Class action suits have often been the only way for employees experiencing illegal discrimination to contest it without spending vast amounts of money and risking retaliation. Depending on how the Roberts Court rules, it may enable employers to easily cut off this avenue of anti-discrimination enforcement by simply refusing to hire anyone who does not agree to resolve future conflicts through arbitration, with a ban on class action.

As described in People For the American Way Foundation’s Rise of the Corporate Court report, the Roberts Court has not been shy in twisting the law in order to rule in favor of corporations and against average Americans. AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion may turn out to be another gift of power to the already-powerful.

PFAW

Supreme Court to Hear Ashcroft Appeal

The Supreme Court today agreed to decide if former Attorney General John Ashcroft can be personally sued for alleged abuse of his authority in the days after 9/11 attacks. According to Bloomberg News:

The U.S. Supreme Court will consider reinforcing the legal immunity of top government officials, agreeing to decide whether a man can sue former Attorney General John Ashcroft after being detained without charge for 16 days.

The justices will review a ruling that allowed a suit filed by Abdullah al-Kidd, a Muslim U.S. citizen who was arrested in 2003 and held as a material witness in a terrorism probe. Al- Kidd says the government classified him as a material witness because it lacked enough evidence to hold him as a suspect.

A panel of the Ninth Circuit held that Ashcroft was not immune from being sued personally for the illegal abuse of authority that was the subject of al-Kidd’s claim. Ashcroft, with the support of the Obama Administration, asked the Supreme Court to reverse this decision and not allow the lawsuit to go forward. In his brief urging the Supreme Court not to hear Ashcroft’s appeal, al-Kidd claims that:

The impetus for arresting [him and other] individuals was not to secure their testimony for a criminal proceeding. Rather, these were individuals whom the government viewed as suspects and wished to detain and investigate. But because the government lacked probable cause to arrest these individuals on criminal charges, it had them arrested as material witnesses, thereby circumventing the Fourth Amendment’s traditional probable cause standard and distorting the basic purpose of the material witness statute.

The Court will likely hear arguments in the case next year and issue an opinion by summer. Justice Kagan has recused herself.

This case is a reminder that in the weeks and months after 9/11, innocent people were being rounded up by the federal government with little to no evidence against them. With Bush’s popularity at its height and few willing to oppose him and his administration publicly, People For the American Way Foundation led the nation in exposing and condemning the Ashcroft Justice Department’s multifaceted threats to liberty.

It will be interesting to see if all of those Tea Partiers who claim to oppose big government encroaching on individual liberties will take a stand against the excesses of the Bush years - and explain why they were silent at the time.

PFAW