Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Why photos? ACLU of Wisconsin Director answers questions on WPR

Did anyone catch ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Chris Ahmuty Joy Cardin's Wisconsin Public Radio show on Monday morning? You can still listen through their archives.

Ahmuty answered questions about why the ACLU is demanding that torture photos be released. Listen to the show to find out:

Why is the ACLU demanding photos? It's not that we want to see photos: we want to see justice and an end to torture. Photos and memos and orders are all evidence of illegal behavior on behalf of the Bush administration. Gathering evidence is the only way to get transparency and ultimately accountability. Attorney General Holder should appoint a special prosecutor to gather evidence and make the case. You can email Holder and tell him yourself.

Why is the ACLU defending detainees? How we treat enemy combatants, how we treat even the “worst of the worst” in our criminal justice system, reflects on our entire justice system. The justice system in our country and internationally has rules. The rules are needed for credibility. We can’t break the rules by not recognizing the same rights for everyone. You can learn more about the John Adams Project on the ACLU website.

Monday, May 18, 2009

When government patents limit women's health - the ACLU lawsuit over breast cancer testing and research

Imagine you are a woman who may have breast cancer. The cancer runs in your family and you need a diagnosis to know if you have one of the two genes associated with breast cancer. The test can tell you if you are at risk for cancer, but there is only one diagnostic test for the gene and therefore no way to get a second opinion on the life-changing test results.

Or imagine you are a woman who is a breast cancer survivor and who has had a double mastectomy. The gene that is linked to the breast cancer could mutate and be the cause of ovarian cancer. Whether or not you have a chance of having the ovarian cancer gene will affect your decision to have your ovaries removed along with your future option to have children.

There is only one company in Salt Lake City that offers the test for $3000.

These choices are facing women across the country. Testing for genetic links to breast and ovarian cancer is possible. But there is only one company that holds the patents to the genetic test. The government, through the patent system, has granted one company a monopoly over the gene (and its mutations), future testing and research.

The ACLU’s website on the breast cancer gene patent says that: “The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) has granted thousands of patents on human genes – in fact, about 20 percent of our genes are patented. A gene patent holder has the right to prevent anyone from studying, testing or even looking at a gene. As a result, scientific research and genetic testing has been delayed, limited or even shut down due to concerns about gene patents.”

On May 12, the ACLU filed a lawsuit (along with partner, the Public Patent Foundation) against the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Myriad Genetics and the University of Utah Research Foundation, holders of the gene patents. The lawsuit charges that the patent is a virtual monopoly over something in nature, a human gene and its variations, that cannot be patented.

Want to learn more? Details on the lawsuit can be found on the ACLU website. You can also read more about the implications of the gene patent in this CNN article.

Want to do more? Become a member of the ACLU – your membership supports our important litigation work like the patent lawsuit. You can also sign a message of support on this issue.

South Milwaukee affordable housing complex threatened with elimination, ACLU of WI calls for HUD investigation

*** Update! Check out this article on the lawsuit and the background story featured in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on June 28, 2009 ***

On Friday, May 15, three legal assistance programs asked the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development to investigate the city of South Milwaukee. The complaint to HUD follows a recent federal court decision finding evidence of housing-related discrimination by South Milwaukee.

Since 2003, the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin Foundation, Legal Action of Wisconsin and the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee have represented diverse families who live in the Lake Bluff Apartments in South Milwaukee. Lake Bluff is home to many of South Milwaukee’s minority residents, and also provides housing for many families with physically disabled members.

For years, South Milwaukee officials tried to prevent the complex from being constructed. Since the 56 units were built in the mid-1990s South Milwaukee has fought to tear this housing down. Tenants are fighting this effort.

“We want to ensure that South Milwaukee doesn’t eliminate diverse, accessible, and affordable housing,” noted ACLU of Wisconsin attorney Karyn Rotker. “Tearing down Lake Bluff will destroy critically needed housing for working families and worsen South Milwaukee’s segregation.” Rotker noted that the last census showed that South Milwaukee’s population was only 1% African-American.

Among Lake Bluff’s tenants are a family who had to sell their home in northern Wisconsin and move into Lake Bluff with their four children after a devastating automobile accident left one parent wheelchair-dependent, because they were unable to find other accessible family housing. Tenants also include multi-racial families seeking the diverse neighbors that Lake Bluff provides, and minority families who left Milwaukee’s central city for the relative peace of South Milwaukee - only to have South Milwaukee seek to tear down their home.

At the same time, South Milwaukee continues to seek federal funding, including money from the Community Development Block Grant program. To receive CDBG funding, South Milwaukee has repeatedly signed agreements stating it will “affirmatively further fair housing,” as the law requires.

“Tearing down a housing complex inhabited by disproportionate numbers of persons of color and persons with disabilities - especially without providing replacement housing for those families - reverses South Milwaukee’s minimal progress towards fair housing,” added Legal Action of Wisconsin attorney Mark Silverman, “rather than ‘affirmatively furthering’ fair housing. We want HUD to make sure that South Milwaukee follows its legal obligations.”

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A memo to the President about accountability and transparency

The ACLU issued an action alert yesterday evening to ask Americans to demand that President Obama honor the Freedom of Information Act request to release photographic documentation of prisoner abuse and torture. Obama had promised to release those photos, but has now changed his position and sent the issue back to the courts.

Accountability cannot be achieved without transparency. Please email the President and ask to move this issue forward.

Here is what I would want my President to hear:

President Obama:
"Voters do not forget the promises you made on the campaign trail. On the first day in office, you signed an executive order that demanded a greater accountability and transparency in government. It echoed what former Attorney General Janet Reno said about why FOIA requests were important: "In the face of doubt, openness prevails."

"The release of the torture memos was an important first step in living up to the commitment to transparency. Everyone knew about the Bush administration's violation of human rights via the memos' legal justifications for the CIA's torture program.

"The Freedom of Information Act requests to release these photos are essential to ensuring that these atrocities are not repeated. Furthermore, saying that the photos will bring our troops overseas into harm's way is not what the public wants to hear. We know our troops are already in harm's way. A photograph isn't the problem. Torture is the problem. Not holding those who wrote the torture policies or who issued the commands for torture accountable is the problem. Americans voted you into office to stop torture and end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"President Obama: release the photos, bring the troops home and hold decision makers in the Bush administration accountable for their human rights violations and abuses of power." - Stacy Harbaugh, Madison WI

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Victory! Madison Common Council votes down restrictive youth curfew change

On Tuesday, May 5 the Madison Common Council heard testimony regarding proposed changes in the youth curfew ordinance. The proposed changed received previous feedback through the Equal Opportunities Commission: the ACLU of Wisconsin submitted comments to the EOC about our opposition to curfews in general and to the criminalization of legal activity for youth in particular.

At the May meeting, ACLU of Wisconsin Board President Erik Guenther gave a testimony that outlined how curfew violations could impact young people’s future job and educational prospects. He also articulated the Orwell vs. Rockwell image of police that was on the minds of many curfew change opponents: curfew enforcement adds to the perception of youth that police are more like characters out of a George Orwell novel rather than a Norman Rockwell painting. By criminalizing otherwise legal behavior, we instill a lack of trust in both youth and law enforcement.

During Guenther's presentation, when his time expired, Mayor Dave Cieslewicz said "Keep going. This is good, keep going." Alders could be heard laughing because of the rarity of the Mayor allowing speakers to exceed their allotted three minute limit.

Watch the Madison City Channel video on your preferred media player here - Guenther's testimony can be seen starting approximately at time marker 4.13.

Several council members supported getting rid of the curfew ordinance outright. Ald. Brian Solomon made a substitute motion for curfew elimination. A second substitute, by Ald. Schumacher, won the prevailing vote. That substitute revised the ordinance to keep the same hours (11pm Sun.-Thurs.; midnight Fri., Sat. for minors 17 and younger) and included an exception for returning home from work, organized school activities and faith-based group or community-based group events.

Media coverage:
The Capital Times gave an in-depth review of the curfew discussion at the Common Council meeting. The website for Channel 3000 also had a summary that noted the ACLU testimony and you can check out their video (stick through the commercial) to hear from youth who are interviewed about the issue. The Wisconsin State Journal had a more abbreviated summary.

The ACLU of Wisconsin opposes curfews based on the status of individuals engaged in otherwise lawful activity. The changes that were proposed to create an earlier juvenile curfew in the City of Madison would make a bad ordinance worse.

While the Wisconsin Supreme Court recognized the constitutionality of curfews (a decision made about the temporary curfews imposed on Milwaukee streets during the civil unrest of the ‘60s), it is the position of the ACLU of Wisconsin that curfew laws deny the constitutional rights of due process, freedom of movement and equal protection. Only in emergency cases of the protection of public safety are temporary curfews justified.

Juvenile curfew laws inherently discriminate against young people and give police unlimited discretion to give citations or even arrest youth engaged in otherwise non-criminal or constitutionally protected freedoms. Limits on young people's freedom of movement should come from parents, not police.

Police already have the power to stop a young person based on reasonable suspicion that they have broken or are about to break a law. Like loitering laws, curfew ordinances criminalize youth movement outside of their homes, even if they are not breaking any other reasonable laws.

Curfew laws treat young people like criminals when they have not committed a crime. This breaks the trust between youth and law enforcement, reinforces a belief that the criminal justice system is biased and inconsistent, and creates costly punishments that disproportionately impact low-income families.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Local conference inspires student anti-oppression work

At the end of April, ACLU of Wisconsin staffers Emilio De Torre and Stacy Harbaugh were presenters at the United Council of UW Students’ Building Unity Conference. Emilio gave the opening address and Stacy facilitated workshops on how students can work with social networking and the media to get their message out.

ACLU of Wisconsin Youth and Program Director Emilio De Torre shares details about the ACLU's mission and work - photo courtesy of United Council

Spring semester Intern Jessica Johnson attended the conference – here is a summary of her experience:

“When I first arrived at the Building Unity conference, I was excited and intimidated all at the same time. I was surrounded by passionate student leaders that came from all over the state of Wisconsin in hopes of learning more about student rights in higher education. Each individual and group was representing different student organizations and governments, all trying to achieve one thing: building unity among schools, associations, and the students we represented.

“It was a weekend of inspiration, hard work, and networking, all with the goals of providing the tools necessary for students to build student movements to include people from all walks of life; provide a safe space and open forum for people who are faced with discrimination in school and our communities; and to encourage discussion and action among these leaders to improve the experience of higher education for all people.

“The line up of speakers for the weekend couldn’t have been any better. We started out with a hard-hitting and what you could call brutally honest presentation by Emilio De Torre, Director of Youth & Programs at the ACLU of Wisconsin. He discussed the a range of issues the ACLU and the ACLU of Wisconsin work on, including addressing structural racism, protecting student free speech, LGBT rights, and contraceptive equity. The presentation enlightened student leaders to issues they may not have known before while also providing inspiration and encouragement to do something about them.

ACLU of Wisconsin Youth and Program Director Emilio De Torre calls on conference participants to share their answers to civil liberties Jeopardy - photo courtesy of United Council

“Throughout the weekend we were able to attend workshops which ranged from getting organizational tools, building membership, and issue awareness. Each workshop was taught by a student or community leader. They covered topics from media representation, lobbying basics, the D.R.E.A.M. act, and various other topics. In one weekend alone I learned how to diversify my student association, how to lobby my legislature, what a feminist looks like, and the pressure put on LGBT student athletes, just to name a few.

ACLU of Wisconsin Community Advocate Stacy Harbaugh shares tips on creative social networking use - photo by Jessica Johnson

“The next day after workshops, Tim Wise spoke strongly about white privilege and the role racism plays in our society today. With conviction and confidence, his words allowed us to look critically at how we individually and as a society address oppression and to understand in what ways we perpetuate it by ignoring the problem. You can read Tim’s compelling blog on his website.

“The last speaker, Chancellor Wilson, ended the conference with a moving autobiography. He connected the idea that we as individuals have the capability to achieve our goals and to fight the oppression that many face while still being able to embrace who we are. With his history of growing up black in the South and the obstacles he had to overcome ended the conference with one last bit of inspiration and hope. We as individuals and as student organizations can overcome obstacles if we face them head on and continue to unify in the fight against the oppression of countless numbers of people.

“At Building Unity, I discovered forms of oppression I once had been oblivious to. With this discovery, I was also given a set of tools to confront these issues both as an individual and as a student leader through the ACLU Student Alliance. I left with connections to other campus groups that were looking to achieve goals similar to mine, and was able to share ideas and discuss plans to really work towards action. The conference in my mind was a success. I left knowing more than when I came and felt more confident in what I would now be able to achieve as a progressive student leader.”

Find out more about internships, ACLU Student Alliances and civil liberties activism by emailing our youth program or visiting the ACLU of Wisconsin youth program's website.

Monday, May 4, 2009

On Governor Doyle’s declaration of public health emergency

On Friday morning, May 1, 2009 Christopher Ahmuty, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, issued the following statement on Governor Doyle’s declaration of a public health emergency in response to the presence of the Influenza A (H1N1) virus in Wisconsin:

The outbreak of a communicable disease, such as the Influenza Wisconsin is witnessing, may cause great public fear and concern. It is especially important at such times that the state implement a public health policy which is rational, effective and has the least intrusion possible on civil liberties. The ACLU of Wisconsin commends Governor Doyle for addressing the presence of the Influenza A (H1N1) virus in a deliberate way in his declaration of a public health emergency.

We wish to remind all public officials that government actions designed to control communicable diseases raise serious civil liberties concerns, such as the loss of one’s physical freedom to assemble, travel and work. Public health actions that single groups or individuals because of their ethnicity or country of origin also raise serious civil liberties concerns.

The ACLU of Wisconsin believes that there may be instances in which the danger to the public from a communicable disease is so grave that a compelling interest which justifies state action is shown. Each communicable disease is unique in terms of its causes, transmissibility, effects and treatment and must be considered individually.

Therefore, all state action should be based on the most recent and most comprehensive medical and scientific information available. All actions should be reviewed periodically in light of new information.

The ACLU of Wisconsin asks state and local officials before implementing actions in response to the current Influenza outbreak to examine it in terms of the following factors and civil liberties concerns:

1) The gravity of the harm. The justification for coercive state action is less when the gravity of the harm is low.

2) The means of transmission, the efficiency of transmission, and the likelihood of the behavior which enhances transmission. There is more justification for state action when a disease is transmitted by casual contact, when fewer contacts are required for transmission, and when behavior which transmits the disease is likely to occur in public.

3) The degree of intrusion and duration of the proposed public health measure. When the action is more intrusive, the duration of infringement longer, the public health justification must be greater.

4) The effectiveness of the proposed public health measure. The justification for compulsory public health measures decreases as those measures are less likely to effectively control the risk of transmission of a communicable disease to the public.

The ACLU opposes any compulsory public health measures undertaken merely to stem public fear of a disease.

The ACLU of Wisconsin is a membership organization which defends the civil liberties and civil rights of all Wisconsin residents. Visit