Protesters throughout the nation have come out to march and peacefully protest the unjust criminal system that led to Michael Brown being gunned down in Missouri on August 9, including members of the People For the American Way Foundation family.
In Missouri, two members of PFAW Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network have taken key roles speaking out for justice. State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal and Alderman Antonio French were both part of the protests in Ferguson; Chappelle-Nadal was tear-gassed, and French was arrested. Other members of the YEO Network have also been organizing national petitions, marching, buying food and water for protestors, trying to dissuade looting, among other things.
Chappelle-Nadal, elected in 2010, represents part of St. Louis County in the Missouri Senate. She has been vocal in her criticism of Missouri Governor Jay Nixon and his response to the crisis in her community.
“I never expected to represent a war zone,” she tweeted Thursday.
French, on the other hand, has been documenting the protests through “advocacy journalism.” Born and raised in O’Fallon, French has dedicated his time in public service to improving the quality of life in north St. Louis, often working in conjunction with police to create safer spaces.
During the protests last Wednesday, French was arrested and then released early Thursday, but the reason behind the arrest remained unclear. His arrest, along with his work documenting the protests, have made him a “national voice against the militarization of police.”
In Miami, another PFAW Foundation voice joined the protests. Young People For alum Phillip Agnew, founder of the Dream Defenders, organized a similar demonstration to protest how “police departments around the country will continue to use black and brown bodies for target practice.”
Many Americans are appalled at the actions taken by law enforcement officials in Ferguson, Missouri this month. PFAW Foundation is proud of the work being done by members of our leadership networks to build a more equal America.
A successful movement begins with a plan for change. People For the American Way’s plan is simple: identify people with an interest and a passion for service who represent the diversity of their communities, equip them with the knowledge, skills and tools necessary for success, and offer long-term support and access to a network of like-minded leaders.
This summer’s primary elections prove this plan is not just theoretical. It stands up to the test. Its success can be seen last week in the state of Michigan — a prime battleground for state and national issues ranging from marriage equality to workers’ rights to women’s rights — where a group of young, progressive leaders won their primary elections.
One candidate for a Michigan House of Representatives seat is Jon Hoadley. He’s an openly-gay man, 30 years old, who is running for office for the first time. He’s also an alumnus of affiliate PFAW Foundation’s Youth Leadership Programs – Young People For and the Front Line Leaders Academy. Last week Hoadley won his primary race for the District 60 seat in the Michigan State House of Representatives and, if he wins the general election in November, will become a member of the Young Elected Officials (YEO) Network.
And Hoadley is in good company. Last month PFAW Action Fund endorsed a slate of young progressive candidates through the Young Elected Progressives endorsement program. Together they represent a progressive direction for the state. PFAW is proud to support these leaders as they move towards the general election in November or toward future efforts to advance progressive values in Michigan.
If the 2014 primary elections and the slate of candidates, including Hoadley, running for office this year are an indication of the payoff of PFAW’s investment in young leaders, then we are off to a great start. It shows that what we have works. We’ve made real change. But it also proves the necessity of continued investment in progressive infrastructure to make a difference on these critical issues, now and in the long term.
We’re at a time when the influence of money in politics goes unchecked, access to the ballot box is challenged, and the far Right is becoming increasingly extreme, intolerant, and out of touch. The individuals endorsed in PFAW’s Young Elected Progressives campaign are standing up to defend and lead with the values of freedom, fairness, and equality for all.
Andrew Gillum is the Director of Youth Leadership Programs at People For the American Way Foundation.
Julián Castro, current mayor of San Antonio, was just confirmed in the Senate by a 71-26 vote to lead the Housing and Urban Development Department. Castro, one of the earliest members of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network, is the first to become a Cabinet member.
I remember meeting Julián at our very first YEO convening in 2006, and being impressed with his passion to serve and better his community in Texas. We are incredibly proud of Julián and excited to see what he’ll accomplish in this new position. His proven leadership in fostering urban revitalization and economic growth make him a natural fit for this position, where he will be able to combat homelessness and help secure access to affordable, quality housing for more Americans.
Julián’s confirmation yesterday demonstrates how supporting young elected officials in our movement can reap tremendous results. I often say that YEOs are the state and local leaders of today as well as the national leaders of tomorrow. While Julián will be the first (former) YEO member to serve in a cabinet level post, I am sure he won’t be the last.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The YEO Network, which includes hundreds of elected officials around the country, earlier this summer met with President Obama and White House officials.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.